Renderings of the proposed Franklin Street redesign project show one vision for the project that could make way for as many as 1,000 units of affordable housing. Courtesy of Franklin Reclamation Authority

In just a few years, Franklin Street could become the center of a lively residential neighborhood instead of just a wide urban thoroughfare people take to get in and out of the city. The street could be bustling with pedestrians and bikes instead of cars. New housing could rise over busy storefronts near the ample green space of an expanded Lincoln Park.

The four-lane road that divides Portland’s peninsula once looked much like this. For decades, Franklin Street was part of a vibrant neighborhood populated by Scandinavian, Armenian and Jewish immigrants. Business owners lived above corner stores, kids played in the street, people walked and biked to work.

Then, in the ’60s, as the nationwide push for urban renewal aimed to clear cities of their so-called decaying areas, the neighborhood was decimated to make room for the modern-day arterial and the large grassy median.

“It would have been a dense neighborhood with row houses like what you’d see on Park Street now, apartments upstairs and stores on the bottom. It was a lot like the West End,” said Julie Larry, a historian with Greater Portland Landmarks.

What were considered good ideas in the past sometimes seem harmful in retrospect. All over the country, cities now are trying to undo urban renewal’s damage in the name of vibrant urban density. Atlanta, Rochester and Syracuse are among the metropolises that have worked to restore neighborhoods sliced through by major roads into lively walkable communities.

1962: Playing ball just off of Boyd Street, looking up to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Cumberland Avenue. The Boyd Street Community Garden is in this spot today. The line of buildings on the right were torn down to build the Franklin Arterial. Portland Press Herald photo courtesy of Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

Nine years ago, after years of work, the Portland City Council approved a master plan to redesign Franklin Street. The plan would eliminate the large median and push all four lanes of traffic together, creating more space for bike lanes, sidewalks and new housing and businesses. But it came with a staggering price tag: $26 million. And action on the plan stalled – until recently.


In September, the city laid out a tentative timeline to break ground on construction in the next five years as they finally neared the end of finalizing a partnership with the Maine Department of Transportation that will be vital for funding the project.

Markos Miller, a third-grade teacher at Skillin Elementary School in South Portland who lives in the East End, has been leading the charge since 2006 to reclaim the area’s walkability and character.

“I’ve been pushing for this project for years,” Miller said. “It is so vital for our city.”

Amy Oberlin and Markos Miller are working on a plan to redesign Franklin Street into a residential, walkable area, undoing decades of urban revitalization that razed the old neighborhood. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

To get the wheels turning again after years of slow progress, Miller and a team of architects, developers and advocates spent months on a new study to show what redesigning the street could do for Portland.

Among the key pitches: They think the city could use or sell nearly 6 acres of land to spur new development – perhaps as many as 1,000 new housing units – and expand Lincoln Park.

That new housing, they say, could bring in an additional $3.5 million a year in property tax revenue.



The idea behind the new plan is not just to create a whole new feeling for the street but also to bring back something lost.

Larry, of Greater Portland Landmarks, said Franklin Street once was similar to many other Portland neighborhoods – walkable and full of life.

But after World War II, a new type of neighborhood design was becoming popular internationally, she said. In Europe, planners were rebuilding cities after the wreckage of war, and American planners were revamping city neighborhoods that had been through economic hardship. Cities razed older, dense neighborhoods to build sprawling roadways and larger buildings. Homes and businesses were separated and infrastructure for cars became more of a priority. This was known as urban renewal.

1962: Congress and Franklin streets, as seen from the east. Peter Diamon’s Market was located at 325 Congress St., which is now part of the grassy median of Franklin Arterial. Portland Press Herald photo courtesy of Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

In Portland, the Portland Slum Clearance and Redevelopment Administration was formed in the 1950s. By 1958, they had their first project up and running, The Bayside West project, intended to update what was thought to be a decaying neighborhood.

That project eliminated 44 units of housing along Franklin Street between Somerset and Congress streets, in the name of modernization. A few years later, a second project aimed at further updating the area took down 54 more units of housing on the Munjoy Hill side of Franklin Street.


“If what they really wanted to do was update the neighborhood, they could have installed new plumbing or fixed sidewalks, but that’s not what they did,” Larry said.

Urban renewal ramped up in the ’60s as white families left American cities in droves for the suburbs, and city planners wanted to keep them coming downtown. Major thoroughfares like Franklin Street were designed to make those comings and goings easy, often at the expense of the lower-income city residents they displaced.

As it became more common to own a car, city planners were facing pressure to create more parking and wider roads. In cities like Portland, which developed over decades with streetcars and pedestrians in mind, that meant big changes.

In 1967, 100 more units of housing came down and a section of Lincoln Park was repurposed to build the current thoroughfare.

“They lost about a third of that park, and that was really the playground and community center for the India Street neighborhood,” Larry said.

Franklin Street (1966) and Franklin Arterial (1982) looking northwest toward Back Cove. Press Herald archives

Blocks of row houses that had stood for decades looking out over Lincoln Park were gone, replaced by what is now the Top of the Old Port parking lot.


More buildings were cleared for parking in the late 1970s.


Miller was president of the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Organization in 2006 when the city considered a plan to expand Franklin Street to six lanes.

“It seemed like it was way too much space and it was more of a suburban highway design in a very urban center,” he said. “That proposal was a big concern for our neighborhood.”

The council ultimately agreed, but that was just the beginning.

Members of the Munjoy Hill group and the Bayside Neighborhood Association started to talk about an alternate vision. Miller imagined Franklin Street with more sidewalks and crosswalks, with restaurants, homes and businesses. He imagined a future Franklin Street like the old neighborhood back in the ’50s.


“That’s our North Star in this work,” he said, “that Franklin can be a vibrant street where people can work and play and live and cross the street safely and also where cars can move.”

The two neighborhood groups at the time got the the city manager involved. The city pulled together about $30,000 to spend on creating designs and formed a committee to choose three possibilities. After a few years of work, the group landed on a plan to eliminate the median and push all four lanes of traffic together, using the freed-up land for housing, shops, pedestrians and bike lanes.

The City Council approved the plan in 2015, but there was no clear funding route to covering the $26 million cost.

None of this should have been necessary, Miller said.

“We’re heading back to where we were,” Larry said. “And it’s sad because all that infrastructure is gone, all the historic homes and businesses – so we have to start from scratch.”



When Miller began to imagine a better Franklin Street, he said, he envisioned a “self-funding project.” He has long believed that the city would have a good chance to recoup the construction costs by selling the extra space that pushing the traffic lanes together would create. Selling that land would also put the property back on the tax rolls. But the city would not be able to cover the upfront cost of restructuring the road or building housing without help.

In the last few years, as the negative impacts of urban renewal have come more to the forefront, some federal grants have popped up aimed at reversing mistakes of the past.

The Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities and Neighborhoods Grant, in grants from $500,000 to $55.5 million, has funded several similar projects.

In Portland’s case, a redesign of Franklin Street would reconnect the East End with the rest of the peninsula.

The city is also considering asking for federal funding.

The on- and off-ramps at Exit 7 on Interstate 295 at Franklin Street in May 2022. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer, file

So far, the city has allotted $125,000 for the project and the state is willing to match that through the Maine Department of Transportation’s Village Partnership Initiative, which aims to revitalize downtowns across the state. With that $250,000, the city now hopes to search for contractors to finalize a proposal – including a budget – that would be used in applications for federal funding.


The partnership with the DOT will come before the City Council for a vote on Feb. 26. If approved, the city can begin looking for contractors.

Bruce Hyman, the city’s project manager, and Jeremiah Bartlett, the city’s transportation engineer, are excited by the new study’s emphasis on housing. They think it will make for a compelling funding pitch.

“Housing is going to be part of the conversation when it comes to funding,” Bartlett said. “That’s what the council is talking about, that’s what our policymakers are talking about. As it stands, several acres of land are not useable for anything in the middle of the city.

Mayor Mark Dion has some worries – particularly about how major construction on Franklin Street could impact traffic. He said he’d like to see it staggered to avoid major traffic jams. He also expressed concern about the money.

“It’s a pretty complicated project,” the mayor said. “I think it’s great that they can capture 6 acres of land downtown. … I hate to be the cold shower in the conversation, but I have to ask, ‘But at what cost?'”

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