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Portland: Back to the Future
By Michael Belleau copyright 1992

Focusing on what Portland once was is the first step toward revitalization


Portland is by no means broken, but it is stalled.

What can be done to make it work better?

In times of uncertainty it is sometimes necessary to step out of our immediate environment and assess the situation from a broader perspective. This article will do that by asking three simple questions: Where did we come from? Where are we now? Where do we go?

Where are we from? Port land

Portland is a seaport, originally settled in a safe harbor for the trading of furs and fish.

In 1690, Portland was a settlement consisting of a main road running along the harbor’s edge, a secondary road running from the main road uphill to the spine of the peninsula, and a tertiary road along the spine loosely connecting various functional elements.

The focus of this settlement was the harbor’s edge.

Through the city’s early decades, its life revolved around a pedestrian playground along the water’s edge- a “soft edge,” where merchants, industries and professionals worked side by side in a healthy mixture. The streets of the city grew to extend out into the water. The city and sea were thoroughly enmeshed.

In 1853, this Venetian character came to an abrupt end when the area at the back of the wharfs (Commercial Street) was filled in and a railroad from Montreal was built along the water’s edge. The city never recovered from this truncation, and over time industry came to reside solely on one side of the tracks with the public on the other.

Today, the city no longer extends wholeheartedly into the sea, and waterfront activities are few, but the framework of streets and wharfs still exists for recovering what was good about the past.

Several steps can be taken to facilitate this recovery. First, allow mixed-use development along the water with marine-related use getting preferential treatment. No condominium-only wharfs or fishing-only wharfs, or retail-only wharfs.

Second, create strong linear pedestrian links down from Congress Street, across Commercial Street, and continuing into the harbor, perhaps with a public plaza on the water. Imagine an outdoor fish market, with all the local boats represented, in a waterfront plaza.

Third, bring the sidewalk out on both sides of Commercial Street at all the crosswalk areas to the depth of a parked car to narrow the crossing distance from 60 feet to 36 feet, with evergreen trees at each crosswalk.

Fourth, encourage development along the water southwest of the waterfront.

Fifth, develop plans for an urban “marginal way” of the waterfront, similar to those in Ogunquit and York, that would allow people to walk along the waterfront.

Finally, enact zoning that promotes a variegated profile to the waterfront’s edge (nooks and crannies).

Where are we? Pedestrian City

What makes Portland so enjoyable now?

Portland is a highly pedestrian city, one of a very few American cities in which it is a pleasure to walk from one place to another.

Portland’s peninsula area presents shops, brick sidewalks, street lamps, benches and human-scale building heights to accommodate the pedestrian. In this way, Portland is much like a European city.

Before industrialization, the European city evolved from an overwhelmingly pedestrian viewpoint, with streets, courtyards and plazas the centers of social interaction. Portland has many places where it is fun to sit, or walk and talk with others.

While the introduction of the automobile brought suburbs, commuting, and the dominance of the automobile rather than the pedestrian, Portland has kept the car from ruling many of its streets.

The area between Center, Spring, Union and Commercial streets was recently swept clean, but development has been with the pedestrian in mind.

A few suggestions for this area: Cross Street should continue through to Spring Street; Cotton Street should be re-established from Free Street down through Commercial Street out to the water; benches and signs are needed to scale down the width of the sidewalk.

Development now must simply follow the dictates of the pedestrian’ needs and Portland can become even more enjoyable.

This means: sidewalks of brick with lampposts, benches and trees; buildings with ground-level shops and architecture that engages the passer-by; street widths that allow for across-the-street conversations and window shopping; plazas at every square and major junction, like Monument Square; a master plan of linked plazas along Congress Street that continue up to the Eastern Promenade and down to the Greyhound station as well as along Commercial Street and into every pocket of the city.

Instead of zoning all car dealerships into one area, all housing into another, and all business into another, mixed-use communities should be developed. Each community would contain its own business, cultural, industrial and housing components, allowing most people to live and work in their communities and walk to work. Communities would be linked by public transportation.

Streets for faster-moving automobiles should be placed at the edges of these communities and express traffic routed underground. Planning should begin now for the submerging of I-295 and the Franklin Arterial.

Munjoy Hill would be a good starting point for the definition of communities. A central plaza, office building, cultural center, and light-industrial facility would be a good start. With a clear, long-term development plan, banks might loan on a longer time frame.

Finally, just as a society listening only to classic hits does not grow musically, our design review authorities must not force classic architecture on our society.

Where do we go? Development

What can we do to get the ball rolling? In a word or two: tax breaks.

Tax breaks saved and renovated nearly all of the charming buildings in the city. The lack of tax breaks caused big companies to relocate outside the city. Tax breaks keep most of our cultural institutions running. Tax breaks make investors take risks.

To get the ball rolling we can: encourage small companies to relocate to the city with first-year tax breaks; encourage pieces of large companies to come to Portland, with brochures focusing on lunch activities and 5-8pm activities; give tax breaks to any company occupying more than 10,000 square feet of space directly on Congress Street to help cement the city’s spine, with a bonus for new construction on Munjoy Hill; encourage non-polluting industry to come to the city by giving tax breaks; give tax breaks to those businesses involved in experimental product work in exchange for a commitment to expand in town if successful; enact stiff fines for those shopkeepers who do not clean the sidewalks outside as well as shovel them; and privatize as many services as possible.

In addition to egalitarian zoning and development, it is necessary to provide a commercial symbol to anchor Portland’s place in the global community.

Just as Zurich has banking, Oslo has shipping, and Houston has oil, Portland should have a symbol by which to communicate with the rest of the world. Wood products might become such as symbol.

Then by taking up this symbol and focusing on becoming an international center for this commodity-product-service, an identity can emerge over the next 50 years or so. No hurry.

The Missouri Compromise legally separated Portland from Boston, bug economically there still exists a father-son relationship that inhibits Portland from self-determination.

There exists a local identity in Portland separate from that of New England as a region. By concentrating on our local economy and refusing to focus our attention on the economy of the region, we can grow and stabilize without Boston’s help.

Maybe it’s time to take that individual economic independence we’re known for and apply it to ourselves as a group.

Portland: Back to the Future