Full text of article as it appeared in the Maine Sunday Telegram.
Downtown, mall can feed each other
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.”
Back in the city, lets’ establish a few guidelines to planning:
-Rule number one: Never build more than 10 subsidized housing units in one place and allow at least one mile between those places. If you create hell, you get hell, not a big surprise.
-Rule number two: It’s OK to bust up hell. Eminent domain and public redevelopment are OK in areas with profound social problems, but not in others.
-Rule number three: Design as if you made $8.50 an hour and had a wife and two kids. If you blow a head gasket your finances are shot for a year. But if you had a bike path and a light rail system to help you get around then things will be OK and you needn’t be too upset.
A “bread and circuses” policy would emphasize free outdoor concerts and festivals, skating on the pond and other activities that make life for your family delightful without costing you money. A beautiful city is part of that policy.
Now we can work on the orchestration of the beautiful city.
Let’s envision Portland as a city where a light train carries people from the mall to Union Station and back. Bike paths link surrounding towns with the city. Automobiles arrive at high speed along I-295 and at medium-high speed along Franklin Arterial, Washington Avenue, High Street, State Street and St. John Street.
-This brings us to rule number four: Where two paths intersect, each carrying a different load, the less powerful load is not interrupted. Therefore, Franklin Arterial, High Street and State Street are moved underground at their intersections with Congress Street.
Vital central avenue
Congress Street, as the city’s spine, will control and support the experience of being in Portland.
First, a continuous running trolley moves from Union Station to the Eastern Promenade and back. The whole street is pedestrian oriented, with the area from High Street to Franklin Arterial pedestrian only.
As development occurs, pedestrian-only sections of the street are added. Streets such as Cumberland Avenue, Free Street and Federal Street- re-established across Franklin Arterial- are designed as delivery streets to support Congress Street.
Plaza-to-plaza mapping can start at Congress Street with the existing Longfellow-Congress-Monument squares used as a base. With Franklin Arterial underground at Congress, a new Franklin Square could be the next plaza. Other new plazas could appear at Union Station and at the intersections of Congress with Deering Avenue, North Street and the Eastern Promenade.
In this pedestrian-oriented city, the streets running parallel to Congress Street would be service streets, oriented to motor vehicles. Beyond the service streets, more plazas could be established along the second streets down from Congress such as Spring Street (west of High Street), Middle Street and Oxford Street (re-establish across Franklin Arterial).
The system of alternating pedestrian-only and service streets could be altered to create pedestrian-only parts of Fore Street and Exchange Street. Commercial Street could accommodate both autos and people. More plazas could be established on the water.
The establishment of plaza could proceed along these lines: The city identifies intersections as good locations for plazas in a master plan. When activity picks up enough at one of these intersections, merchants petition for the city for “plaza” status. A contest is held to create a sculpture that celebrates some aspects of the city and is built with city funds. Lamps, benches, trees, and brick or stone paving are installed by the city, usng a different design for each plaza.
The key to successful Portland is activity along Congress Street. As I drove along the street one night recently it was dark and no one was around. The feeling of being in a city at night with no people in sight was very unsettling.
We need to provide incentives that will encourage development of appropriate nighttime activities. These businesses include hotels, restaurants and theaters.
Stores would be encouraged to remain open later if police foot patrols and hotel-restaurant-theater activity gave people a sense of security during the evening. A new convention center close to Congress Street would help.
I hope this article has stimulated dialogue and revived dormant ideas. It is possible to build the path of least resistance, both physically and emotionally.