Join or Donate

Restoring Quality of Place to an Urban Corridor: Portland, Maine

-Markos Miller, Guest Blogger

Residents and visitors to Maine alike appreciate our special Quality of Place, whether it's the coast, the woods, farms, or downtowns. Since its founding, GrowSmart has been dedicated to the preservation and strengthening of such assets. The special character of our downtowns is particularly affected by the connection between our transportation and land-use policies. The City of Portland is currently engaged in a re-examination of the auto-centric transportation planning from the last half of the 20th century in order to restore a sense of Place to a desolate transportation corridor in the heart of the city.

    Most visitors to Maine's largest city are as familiar with the Franklin Street corridor, formerly known as “Franklin Arterial”. For some it may represent a quick way in or out of town, for others it may bring to mind bumper-to-bumper traffic waiting to get into a parking lot or onto I-295. For most residents of Portland Franklin Street represents a tear in the urban fabric of the historic downtown. Over fifty years ago a decade long process of “slum-clearance” began, systematically bulldozing neighborhoods of low-income and immigrant communities. Lost were hundreds of units of housing, scores of businesses, pedestrian routes that had endured for centuries, and important places where people gathered to experience community.

    Across the country urban neighborhoods were being destroyed to make way for urban highways, which were intended to ease new suburbanites' commutes into the city. In the late 1960's the current Franklin Street “Arterial” was proposed by no other than the inventor of the American shopping mall: Victor Gruehen. However, even though the roadway was designed only for vehicular traffic, it has never efficiently performed this function; nor did it accommodate pedestrians or bicyclists. Along the corridor acres of high value urban real estate, inaccessible to the public, lay unused or underused. The corridor presents a void in the city, empty of social or economic activity.

    However, in 2006 members of the community began advancing a vision of Franklin Street that was a vibrant part of the city that works better for both people and cars. Neighborhood organizations came together to form the Franklin Reclamation Authority, holding neighborhood workshops to educate the public on the problems and the opportunities in the corridor, and facilitating a consensus-based decision making process that produced a guiding statement of the existing problem and a community vision for the corridor. As GrowSmart Maine's ReEnvisioning the Highway Strip initiative sees new opportunities for place-making in auto-centric strip mall designs, Portland residents saw opportunities to restore social and economic vitality to the urban renewal corridor that is Franklin Street.  This grass-roots effort led to the creation of the Franklin Street Redesign Study by the City of Portland in 2008.

    This study group, comprised of community and business representatives from city and region, with the guidance of traffic engineer Lucy Gibson of Smart Mobility, and landscape architect Mitchel Rasor of MRLD LLC, educated itself and the public on challenges and opportunities in the corridor. The committee learned that the current design does not maximize its capacity to move traffic due to a number of design flaws, and that there is more than enough roadway for future traffic growth. Traffic projections presented by traditional modeling greatly exceeded the rather insignificant change in traffic that had been documented over the previous 20 years. Furthermore, the committee found that as many as eight acres of unused or underused public land could be put to better use as accessible public space, pedestrian infrastructure, and economic development opportunities.

    Informed by a public design workshop process, the committee developed three conceptual alternatives for a future Franklin Street: the Urban Street, the Urban Parkway, and the Multi-Lane Boulevard. These three concepts present the range of solutions that the committee felt best aligned with the community goals and addressed transportation needs for years to come. Surprisingly to some, the committee learned that pedestrian, bicycle, and vehicular mobility and safety are not mutually exclusive in an urban corridor. For example, travel speeds of 25-30 mph allow the road to hold the optimal amount of traffic; these speeds also represent the upper threshold of safety in cases of collisions. A pedestrian friendly street-scape, with wide sidewalks, trees, public places to gather, buildings facing the street, and safe crossings, helps to support these safe travel speeds for drivers. The reconnection of cross streets severed by the arterial design is another example of balancing diverse needs for traffic and adjacent neighborhoods. The balance of safety and mobility for all users creates the context for a vibrant urban environment that offers a welcoming gateway experience to visitors to the city.

    In partnership with Maine DOT, and the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS) the City of Portland is now embarking on the feasibility analysis of the range of design components advanced from the earlier phase of the study. While each of the three concept alternatives presents a distinct identity for the corridor, the committee realized that the best design may incorporate features from multiple concepts. Of critical importance in this analysis will be the consideration of how the roadway and the surroundings of the roadway, its context, relate to each other.

    A decade ago the City of Portland began work on a traffic study for the Portland peninsula. This study saw an eventual widening of Franklin Street out to as many as nine-lanes of traffic. This top-down planning exercise failed to consider community values and was rejected by the community. Today's effort to re-vision Franklin Street springs from that same community, and has advanced from the grassroots level to City Hall and MaineDOT through a process of sharing of information, critical analysis of data, and a planning process designed for early, frequent, and effective public engagement. The Franklin Street redesign effort presents exciting opportunities, not only for Portland, but for communities across the state that are grappling with balancing transportation needs with issues of livability, and for those that seek a more inclusive planning process that results in strong community support for implementation.

    To learn more about the Franklin Street Study and the concept alternatives visit: http://franklinstreet.us/ and http://www.portlandmaine.gov/franklinstreetarterial.htm

 

Markos Miller lives in Portland, Maine.  He is a teacher at Deering High School and Chairs the Franklin Street Redesign Study.