Thursday, March 13, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 8

1992 Maine Sunday Telegram article.
Before leaving to study in London, still in the 92 recession, I felt that if everyone loved the mall then downtown could grow by emphasizing how it was the exact opposite. That if the mall was a hermetically sealed indoor private conditioned shiny auto destination then downtown could be promoted as an outdoor, brick sidewalked pedestrian wonderland. So I wrote an article published in the Insight section of the Maine Sunday Telegram in the fall of 1992 while I was starting studies at the Architectural Association in London.
Maine Mall object in empty sea of parking vs. Portland waterfront spaces between buildings.

Here is the first half of the article as it appeared:

By Michael Belleau copyright 1992

Two sources of energy dominate the relationship between Portland and the communities that surround it: downtown and the mall. By understanding the source of each one’s energy, we can begin to understand how the city relates to its suburbs and find ways to help the city grow.

The mall is a product of the suburb, itself a product of our love of nature, our distrust of the city and our drive for self-sufficiency.

Self-sufficiency is at the core of our collective conscience, and the single-family home and single-owner car are its means of expression.

Once we were all independently driving around, we needed a place to drive to. First came the drive-in, followed by the supermarket, and finally the mall, where we can do our shopping in one comfortable location.

Now the easier-to-park-at-and-more-comfortable-with-everything-you-need mall has wholesale warehouses springing up around it, providing us with the lowest prices. Nearby we find office parks to centralize our activities further.

All are guided by the maxim: Easy to get to. The mall’s powerful lure is predicated on the use of the car to run errands: a definition of suburbia.

The city has historically been a place where we could walk through the streets from shop to shop to run our errands. But now it is easier for most people, who live in suburbs, to shop at the mall.

The city has become a place for doing business, a place for people (mostly young) to get to know each other. It is a place to find graphics centers, banks, and bistros for schmoozing.

It is easier to find a good restaurant in the city. It is easier to find cultural events and attractions. It is easier to experience beauty in built form, as you are walking or sitting. And it is easier to strike up a conversation in the city, because you’re probably not in your car.

The city’s power lies in culture and human interaction, with man-made buildings and plazas its stage.

For Portland to grow in the future it must copy the mall in some ways and strive to be opposite in others.

If the mall is easy to get to, then Portland must be easy to get to as well. If the mall has public toilets, pedestrian-only streets, is well lit, and has security patrol, then downtown must also have these amenities.

On the other hand, if the mall area is ruled by the car then the city can emphasize the pedestrian. A light-rail link between downtown and the mall seems to be the ideal solution to the mall-downtown equation. The mall area is for cars and parking; the city for people and walking. Bother are for bicycling.

By building brick by brick, a pedestrian dreamscape in the city, the city will strengthen its natural source of power. Not only can it emphasize culture, but also intimacy, the kind of day-to-day interaction with others that the suburban lifestyle has nearly eliminated. And, with a little ingenuity, it could compete on the mall’s home turf: shopping.

The city can never compete with suburban shopping centers for wholesale-priced business unless city stores can move the merchandise to the customer’s house by delivery. Then only a showroom is required, and the customer is free to roam without bags.

Next we need to make roaming the city fun.

Escape to the city

As the mall area grows into a behemoth of endless parking lots and warehouses, signs of varying degrees of loudness act like a thousand television commercials simultaneously screaming for our attention. Driving through this zone we become anxious, confused and physically taxed. The city can offer relief.

Let people hop on a rail line or bicycle and come into town to shop amid a complex of beautiful plazas and pedestrian-only streets carefully orchestrated to provide the most soothing experience.

Conversely, for the mall area to strengthen the city as the opposite face of the same coin, steps must be taken to boost the source of its power: the countryside.

The mall area now is an anarchic free-fire zone that is rapidly dissolving into an anywhere-USA-but-most-likely-New Jersey. Residents of South Portland and Scarborough may wish to think about the identities of their towns and how they would like their towns to look in the future. A good theme for development here could be “A peaceful drive through the countryside.”

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