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.

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