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.

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