Tuesday, August 16, 2016

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 19

Portland Maine waterfront with proposed new buildings in black strengthening the existing piers as streets fabric, etc.
(Continuing with my July 2010 Maine Sunday Telegram article proposing a blueprint for a successful approach to development on Portland's waterfront...) Using historical analysis combined with a form-based approach, I suggested we treat the piers as streets with buildings along the sides of the piers. Using the Thomas block as an example of how to build on that side of Commercial we could make a continuous 4 story wall of mixed use space with storefronts at grade. Then the piers could have a street running down the middle and buildings on the sides with waterfront use on the pier level and provide as much public access as possible. Great read for those who care about building better places to live especially those with waterfronts. Here's the article text second half:

...It is clear the most crucial aspect regarding development on the piers is that a street run down the middle of them that imitates the streets of the Old Port. This means sidewalks on both sides, or a totally pedestrian street wide enough to drive down and walk alongside moving cars and nothing at the end of the pier at the end of these ‘streets’ to block the view. These ‘streets should be mandated public access corridors as the piers are private property. Buildings could line both sides of these streets to a height of 2 or 3 stories without blocking out too much sunshine or overwhelming the ‘feel’ of the old established building fabric. Buildings should be required to build to the sidewalk edges to make the ‘walls’ to these street ‘hallways’. Open air breaks in these buildings for view and pedestrian access should occur at mandated intervals to allow people to see the ocean from the ‘street’, walk to the pier’s long edges from the street, and to break up the potentially long building walls. It is this human scaled pre-industrial fabric that generates the livability we enjoy and thus, attracts the income we depend on.

Since ALL uses except marine ones can be accommodated anywhere else, it is natural that the ground floors of most space on piers beyond the depth of a Thomas block size building be reserved for marine use only. Piers are built to function as a way to allow boats to pull up alongside them- for marine use. Once that space is handed over to non-marine use, the whole logic of the city begins to fall apart and our sense of place unravels. We passed the marine only zoning law because we panicked when Chandler’s private condominiums and gated street went up. We instinctively knew the whole city as a place was at risk. Seafood restaurants with moderate income menus like the Porthole and Becky’s feel natural to us on the ground floor as does a fish market. It is the ground floor of the buildings that we interact with and which provide us with a sense of place. On the other hand, I’m not sure it makes much difference on the floors above whether there are restaurants, offices or concert halls. The exception is residential which can cause problems when condo owners act naturally territorial leading to lawsuits and which cannot be changed to a different use if the public changes the zoning. There must be a way for property owners to make a deserving profit while the greater good and Portland’s long-term interests are preserved.
Believe it or not this is a pier- Custom House Wharf.

If we write the zoning in such a way as to get the street space the way we want and the form of the buildings similarly creating that street space- public space- then Portland will always be the best experience we can get. This means writing a form-based code instead of a function based code. Zoning language should emphasize that use requirements may change to accommodate public interest but that building form requirements will stay. This actually stabilizes the owner’s long-term viability as they can build the form and fill it with whatever use is approved at any point in time.

Finally, the actual pier edges running along the sides should be well thought out to allow a certain amount of public strolling. This is easy if an 8 foot strip along the water is open for walking along, exceptions made for actual work such as unloading fish, etc., which would pose a danger to the public. Thus, the public could walk along most of the waterfront edge for a magnificent experience and lure tenants better than any brochure owners could come up with.

So we see that the solutions to our needs at our waterfront are simple: a street down the middle with no building to block the end view; buildings like Thomas Block along Commercial Street with storefront on ground floor; a human building height along piers; access to the edges; marine only ground floors; and buildings on either side of the ‘street’ that meet the sidewalks.

It is the unique street space that we love in our city. Pier streets have always been Portland’s essence.

Michael Belleau is principal of Michael Belleau Architect, an architecture and urban planning firm in Portland. He has worked since 1992 on Portland urban design issues, writing many articles for this paper. He is a fourth generation Mainer, former fisherman and Portland resident and can be reached at www.michaelbelleau.com or his blog: www.mainearchitecture.blogspot.com.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 18

Historically Portland's piers acted as extensions of the streets with buildings on both sides only with water underneath.


In 2010 Portland Maine's waterfront code and future was a big topic and having analyzed it from the beginning of my career, I wrote this July 2010 Maine Sunday Telegram article to lay down a blueprint for a successful approach to development there. Using that same analysis as my thesis combined with a form-based approach I suggested we treat the piers as streets with buildings along the sides of the piers. Great read for those who care about building better places to live especially those with waterfronts. Here's the article text first half:
My July 2010 article and excerpt.

 Portland Piers Are Streets

By Michael Belleau copyright 2010
Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram

July 7, 2010

When we walk down to Portland’s waterfront and stroll through the fabric of the Old Port or meander along Commercial Street, our senses are focused inevitably on the water. The smell of the ocean when the weather warms up and the sounds of boats and birds beckon but the site of the water is what we yearn for. Our visual connection to this place is constantly broken by buildings and then re-established through view corridors. Views from a distance are balanced by walkways along the water’s edge. This variety of water view experiences is what makes Portland itself a distinct place. In order to answer the question of how to build here we need not get too complicated. We just need to acknowledge the deep structure formed by history here that has worked all along.

A map of Portland in 1690 shows just three roads: one along the shore (Fore St.), one going from this one up hill (India St. now), to one along ridge (Congress St. now). When Captain Moet burned the city down in 1775 piers had begun to sprout along the waterfront, a few of them aligned with the streets coming down from the spine of Congress Street. By 1823 many more piers had sprung up, most of which were extensions of the cities street fabric coming down from Congress Street, across Middle and Fore and out into the harbor. Starting at the west end and moving east we can see streets becoming piers at the streets State, Anne, High, Center, Cotton, Cross, Union (the largest wharf, Union Wharf), Plum, Exchange, Market, Silver, Willow, Deer, Moose, Tyng, King (India), Hancock and Monitor. Tyng Street actually went out into the water as a pier and came to an end at an ‘L’ intersection over the water with Thames Street’s pier extension!

As these piers grew longer they began to differ little from the same streets on land with rows of buildings along both sides of a street at the center of the wharfs except the back of the buildings were at the waters edge with ships tied up. The street fabric of Portland was one of the city running right out into the sea.

The Portland experience was of walking down a street seeing the water at the end, and as you approached that end, glimpsing the water on both sides between buildings and realizing you were over the water. If you walked along the waterfront down and between wharfs you could experience a myriad of building forms, views, wharf edge depths, site lines, people, ships, etc. However, as with many human scaled environments, the Industrial Revolution inadvertently removed a large portion of this experience.

In 1852 the railroad tracks to Montreal were laid across the wharfs out in the water close to land. This line of tracks became Commercial Street when the water between the tracks and Fore Street was filled in. The crenellated outline of the waterfront edge was replaced by a monotonous straight one. Piers still multiplied (I count 36 total from 1866 map) and grew further into the harbor while railroad track spurs ran out down the piers to expedite the movement of goods. The new tracks divided the waterfront into a city side and a wharf side. You knew if you were out in the water and if you were not because you had to cross the monotonous tracks first. Mystery and intrigue, essential components to the heightened urban visual and spatial human experience began to evaporate.

Now, with trains long gone, we see the gradual restoration of the street fabric of Portland especially down at the east end of the waterfront. Commercial Street has become a sort of Main Street of the waterfront area. 100 Commercial St., the Thomas Block, exemplifies the kind of building form we generally enjoy along the water side of this street. At four stories it is not too tall, curves along the sidewalk forming a wall to enclose the street so that we experience the street as an outdoor public room, and has storefronts at ground level to engage the pedestrian and provide a sense of safety and activity. We can use this building as a model for development along the water side of Commercial Street to the depth of the Thomas Block. It is the building overall form that we wish to guide to meet our collective needs, not strictly the use.

Next post will have rest of article and diagram explaining concept.

Monday, March 23, 2015

20 Year of Urban Design in Maine 17

We must move from object-oriented thinking to public space-oriented thinking.

Continuing discussion of my generic good walkable urban design article I wrote in September 2008 just as the world was about to collapse: 

In my last post I talked about creating town buildings that formed great urban space and each building may be used in any number of ways. And that specific function buildings like libraries and gyms could be used by many ages and at all hours so we didn’t waste money and space on having a different one of each for each age group. I posted the article as well. 

For instance we might have a post office booth in a town building so there was a post office in each town without having to build a separate building. Essentially that focusing on walkable neighborhoods that contained life’s spaces made for a better quality of life.

Traditionally when we look to build a new public building we find a place for a building by searching for empty lots near the existing facility or greenfield sites near popular roads easily driven to. We create objects that are given a little extra care architecturally if they are important. This I call object-oriented city/town planning thinking. 

This sort of planning leads to facilities scattered about, each dressed up according to importance and not necessarily linked in any way. They are like objects placed randomly on a table. Some of those objects may be beautifully designed but as each one is built there is no greater space or experience formed by them; no link between adding and a overall experience.

When you are in Venice walking down a path along a canal and into a piazza or over a bridge, you don't care what is behind one door or another. If one door had a school and one a post office and one a facilities maintenance bureau offices that's fine. It's the urban space formed by the buildings that makes for a great experience. 

If you are making great spaces with your plan then every time a new building goes up a more wonderful public space is created. And each piece adds to the whole. With a good plan every time someone builds people of the area are happier as the public space becomes better and better; their place becomes better.

My mantra is, "Each piece adds to the greater whole."

We must break from object-oriented public buildings thinking and move to urban space-oriented public spaces thinking.

Friday, January 16, 2015

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 16

  (Cheeky graphics by Telegram staff but town green clearly visible.)
In September 2008 I wrote a sort of generic good walkable urban design article just as the world was about to collapse. My main point was that we could create town buildings that formed great urban spaces and each building may be used in any number of ways. And that specific function buildings like libraries and gyms could be used by many ages and at all hours so we didn’t waste money and space on having a different one of each for each age group.

Here's the article as it appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram:

Special to the Maine Sunday Telegram Insight section:

Close To Home
Copyright 2008 Michael Belleau

Get in the minivan and drive to school to drop off kids. Drive to work. Drive back to school to pick kids up. Drive to soccer field for kids practice. Drive to grocery store. Drive to music lesson. Drive to everything.

Until now, we have located all our daily activities on the basis of driving to them. All of our decisions were based on how much driving time it took. When building a soccer field location was determined by how many minutes drive it was for the most people. When locating schools we looked at how long a trip it was for buses. When purchasing a home we looked at how long a drive it was to school and work. All the talk of building village communities with open surrounding land and the, ‘New Urbanism’, movement did nothing to impact potential homeowners from purchasing the best house and lot for the money they had regardless of whether it was in town or not. Even the sustainability movement could not change the power of best-lot-for-money and drive time equation.

Now things are changing.

We are trapped. We buy hybrid cars. We still drive them in frantic pick up and drop off routines and time consuming stressful daily circuits of pavement. Much of our time is spent chatting on cell phones while driving, hoping to get some joy from conversation while stuck in a discorporate (out of body) space. Fat, stressed and isolated we feel happy to be a part of the culture but strangely out of sorts. Something doesn’t seem right.

Now is probably the time to bring the sustainability movement, the new urbanism, the cost of oil, and our own unease together to return to a pedestrian way of life.

Imagine waving from your front door as you children leave to walk to school. Imagine if the soccer practice was a 10-minute walk from home. Imagine walking by the grocery store on your way home from the field. Imagine during that walk you were accompanied by another parent also walking home! Our whole automobile centered living paradigm must change.

We can start by creating neighborhood zones using the 10-minute walk as our maxim. Luxembourgian architect Leon Krier who had studied the work of the Austrian Camillo Sitte forcefully propagated this urban design concept. By locating elementary school, library branch, post office, sports field, grocery store, YMCA, etc. in each neighborhood, our lives are made simple and sustainable.

Schools are most easily taken on as the state could mandate this. By taking a facilities-centric approach we can create flexible places for the community. If you have a neighborhood gym then children can use it during the day and other community events at other times. As number of children changes the rooms used for classes can be used for other things if facility is considered part of the neighborhood’s available space. Middle and high schools can be located within a longer walk- slightly longer for middle (15 minutes?) and substantially for high school (20 minutes?).

Similarly with the library, we can discard the old precedent of having one large municipal library where all printed matter is stored as if we are still using it as the only source of information. Branch libraries can be small and staffed by few with a small children’s books section and one-day delivery of interlibrary books and videos for others as well as internet terminals and an expert on information retrieval on hand. Audio and video books could be distributed with mp3 devices loaned out. These places can have the latest technology for those who have older technology. If this is part of a neighborhood building then meeting space can be shared and the elementary school can use the same library.

Post offices should be just a stall staffed by one in a neighborhood building with people in a hurry going to the central city one.

Grocery stores are market driven but can be encouraged through town incentives. If people are creating pedestrian traffic, the market will respond and partner with town planners.

Sports fields are multi-use and best located in each neighborhood. This may require eminent domain but at fair market price they are well worth having in each neighborhood for obvious reasons. Fields can be used as parks, sport fields, town squares, and community activity hubs. Retired people can sit and watch games and wildlife. Saturday vegetable outdoor markets can be there. This is the single most important space from an American culture point of view and we need to have large spaces for this in each neighborhood.

Now, whether a YMCA runs the community exercise facility or the municipality does, this type of gym, pool, exercise space can be in a community building along with other facilities so that space is shared and not locked into single program ownership; a facilities-centric approach. By leasing these spaces to the Y for community programs we can avoid complicated bureaucracy if that becomes an issue (just as mail is best left to the federal post office).

Now no one can make people move into neighborhood centers and leave the open suburban lots behind but if we work together as a state we can get the infrastructure in place for healthy sustainable lifestyles. This old bumper sticker of mine I found the other day says, “If the people lead, eventually the leaders will follow.”

If the state leads, eventually the people will follow.


Michael Belleau is principal of Michael Belleau Architect in Portland Maine. He has written articles on urban design in Maine for this paper previously and can be reached at www.michaelbelleau.com

Next I'll discuss the break with traditional icon oriented, or object oriented city/town facilities thinking.