March 19, 2013

Maine Voices: Proposed midtown project would undermine plan for a new Bayside

The tall buildings and huge parking garage veer from a vision for the neighborhood crafted by many people.

By Constance Bloomfield

PORTLAND — "A New Vision for Bayside," issued in 2000, is a plan to turn a bedraggled part of the Portland peninsula into a thriving neighborhood representing the best of what we love about our city. The dedicated planners, residents and property owners who wrote the plan have made solid progress in realizing its ambitious and farsighted goals. The impact of this enormous project cannot be underestimated.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Constance Bloomfield, M.C.P., R.A., is a member of the board of directors of the Portland Society for Architecture.

The journey to a new Bayside is long and bumpy – with many diversions. That is why the Portland Society for Architecture believes that we are about to head down paths that will take us far from the intended destination.

Three aspects of the midtown proposal now under consideration throw us off course: taller, blockier buildings; a big parking garage and sea level rise.

BUILDING HEIGHT

Initially, new buildings were to be lower on the flat portions of Bayside and taller as they approached the "spine" of downtown.

Placing taller buildings on higher and better soils fits our traditional, practical building pattern. It helps define Portland's unique and widely admired character.

From the spine, we see out over lower buildings to bay, cove or mountains. Approaching Portland, the dramatic city center rises over low buildings – looking grander because it stands on higher ground. Using topography to create drama and identity is an aspect of excellent urban design, highlighted in "A New Vision for Bayside."

Bowing to political pressure, this pattern was flipped for Bayside.

Buildings in large portions of "the flats" can rise 165 feet as long as "stepbacks," determined by ratios of street width to building height, are used to reduce the girth of buildings as they rise. Stepbacks diminish the "canyonization" of streets.

Sadly, the Planning Board is being asked to scrap the widely used ratios. This seemingly small detour becomes a real change of direction on the ground.

The proposed midtown project locates four 165-foot (13- to 15-story) apartment buildings on Somerset Street, which is only 50 feet wide. Trivial 7- or 8-foot stepbacks determined by floor plans, not ratios, won't reduce their mass. No amount of facade decoration will reduce their effect.

Large portions of Portland's traditional urban form will be obscured, along with Bayside's desire for a lively and appealing street life. (By comparison, the InterMed building is 31 feet shorter than these four buildings, and Marginal Way is twice as wide as Somerset Street.)

Making matters worse, the Planning Board is now considering permitting the same heights along the entire south side of Marginal Way.

PARKING GARAGES

Portland received a federal loan to help clean up Bayside and build a parking garage. This garage is seen by many as key to spurring investment, but its construction has hit one stumbling block after another.

As now proposed, the midtown developer will be given the borrowed $9 million for the garage, and the city will pay off its 30-year debt with property taxes hopefully generated by the project. The 700-space garage will be more than twice the size of the Elm Street Garage and entirely occupy one side of a plaza intended as the heart of Bayside.

The size and location of the garage no longer fit our traffic management policies. According to the Peninsula Traffic Study adopted by the City Council, "the city should manage the parking supply rather than continue to expand it," and it should "construct and promote remote parking connected to downtown by frequent reliable transit."

The subsidized garage is driving up the cost of each apartment by approximately $34,000 and delivering automobiles to the center of what was intended as a pedestrian delight. At full build-out, parking will exceed the amount required for housing elsewhere on the peninsula by almost 2 to 1.

SEA LEVEL RISE

The vision for Bayside didn't account for rising sea level, now evident in the periodic tidal "events" in the Whole Foods parking lot.

Every projection shows sea level rise dramatically affecting Bayside. Because insurers require first floors to be 2 feet above flood level, Somerset Street, and all its utilities, intersections and drainage will have to be raised 2 to 3 feet – or the midtown developer must ramp up to the numerous ground-floor establishments central to the vision for Bayside.

In the long run, raising Bayside's street grid is mind-boggling, but dealing with sea level rise entry by entry is a disservice to the vision.

The midtown proposal puts Portland on a different course than was laid out in the Bayside vision and should be reconsidered.

– Special to the Press Herald

 

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