Sunday, November 30, 2014

20 Years of Urban Design in Maine 15

Deering Oaks Park as Portland's oasis.
This post continues to discuss my 2003 article proposing design changes to show Deering Oaks could be our Central Park. I believe we are on the verge today of making moves to transform the park into Portland's great oasis. Removing the auto centric scars that State and High streets cut into the park is key and with the cleaning up of Kenduskeag Street so it stops a block short of Forest will enable us to move forward with Forest Ave as a pedestrian boulevard. Cutting out roads through the park forces us to make Forest Avenue a major auto and pedestrian route and this means boulevard. By eliminating the cloverleafs at 295 and substituting on and off ramps with stop signs, people and bicycles can move out and into town under shade trees and with a metropolitan flair.

One thing about my proposal looking back would be to ignore the sinking of State and just eliminate it for autos entirely. This is on par with current models showing people will use a number of streets to reach each individuals particular destination and time is not lost eliminating one option. Also, pedestrian advocate groups like one in Portland are embracing turning the classic interstate through cities (like 295) into a surface boulevard and ending the poor planning of past.

Here is the second half of the article (part 2; see previous blog for part 1):

Deering Oaks Heading for Dead End
By Michael Belleau copyright 2003

...As it works now, many of those using the park arrive by car. A true city park should be a natural walk from one errand or household. In order to achieve this, we need to eliminate the two highway-like roads that slice through the park like violent gashes in a gentle oasis. Healing these wounds would allow residents and visitors to walk to the park from all over Portland: the Portland Public Market, the main post office, the University of Southern Maine, Congress Street, Middle School, and the West End, Back Cove and downtown.

In order to transform the park into a true urban back yard, three changes must take place:
  • Heal the scars caused by High and State streets.

Assuming that federal funds are out of the question on a big scale, it is State Street that does the most damage, cutting a third of the way into the park's rectangle.

This must be run under the park for as great a distance as affordable. Obviously, the area alongside the lake would be a great place for the road to disappear underground and allow park users to play on that edge. Assuming dropping the road underground twice is expensive, the city should study where to run State Street underground.

This study should look not only at easing the flow of pedestrians, but also at the emotional perception of the rectangle as a whole. And if a full tunnel is too expensive, running State Street underground can be achieved by spending only for depressing the road and covering it with a wide pedestrian area with soundproofing sprayed underneath.

Next, High Street is close enough to Forest Avenue that the two should be combined into a Parisian boulevard, with Forest Avenue at the post office turned into a 15-mph one-way side street with parallel parking, as a boulevard would have. Pedestrians must be able to enjoy slow, casual pace crossing from the post office into the park, waiting for only one light at High Street and then getting total access to the park.

As we all know, Forest Avenue is a nightmare to walk down going out of town by 295 and almost impossible to walk across once you get to the park area- and it stays that way going out of town.

  • The park must feel like a room with buildings forming four walls, like Central Park.

This means finding ways to build tight to the sidewalks surrounding it. Park and Forest avenues work well as is. It would be great if the middle school dide could be built tight to a large sidewalk and indoor sports facilities could be built alongside 295.

  • Connections in the form of sidewalks and lights must be run in straight lines into Deering Oaks from areas surrounding the park.

These rhythms of light and path will strengthen the feeling for us, while walking, of the park's being a room in a series of urban spaces all liked as in a house

If Deering Oaks is the hub of the city, the real estate on Park Avenue could be compared to the buildings that line Central Park.

And to help establish the park as the city's mall-like showpiece (think Washington D.C.), a major science museum or other crowd-drawing institution should occupy the post office area. (This supposes that the annex to the original will become available when the new distribution center is built.) Twain Braden proposed the idea of an indoor botanical garden to me a few years ago, and that would appeal to all of us year-round. The park would then have neighborhoods and institutions surrounding it.

Depressing 295 like 95 does in downtown Providence would be helpful to the city in all areas but not critical to the park's fulfilling it's 80 percent of its potential.

In 2000, I took part in the Bayside design workshop run by Alan Holt of Portland's planning department, and there were many schemes linking Bayside with the park. (Look for the forthcoming book about Holt's Bayside and waterfront meetings.) The star urban design guru headlining the event, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, suggested sinking 295 as a way to reclaim the visual and pedestrian connections between the sides.

Take a map of Portland out of your kitchen drawer and it's obvious that Deering Oaks is our chance to make a new center uniting both sides of 295 into a whole: our Central Park, our oasis in the urban fabric.

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