Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Fixing Franklin Arterial

I finally made it to the "Lost Sites" exhibit at Aucocisco gallery this weekend. The exhibit seems to have generated a good deal of thoughtful discussion about some of the underutilized places we have in Portland's central city, including an abandoned brick shell of a building on India Street and a locked-up alley that connects Congress Square to a parking lot behind the Schwartz Building.

But most of the submissions dealt with a prominent "lost site" that cuts between the East End and downtown: the Franklin Arterial median strip, a depressed (in more ways than one) strip of grass and trees between four lanes of downtown expressway. Of all the abandoned, marginalized places in downtown Portland, this median strip feels the most out of place and the most forlorn, but also filled with the most possibility.

Franklin Arterial is a product of what they called "urban renewal" in the 1960s. One proposal at Aucocisco includes a panel of what Franklin Street used to look like: a narrow way densely lined with historic buildings (Franklin Street is highlighted in red):

Downtown "revitalization" plans in 1967 and 1968 emphasized bringing more cars into Portland so that the Old Port and Congress Street could compete with suburban strip malls. At the same time, the idea of "slum clearance" was near its peak of popularity: cities nationwide were following the lead of Robert Moses in New York to bulldoze poor neighborhoods and replace their homes with freeways and ghetto high-rises. In hindsight, these concepts weren't so much "urban renewal" as they were "urban eugenics." Nevertheless, these ideas converged along Franklin Street when city planners decided to clear out tenement houses and replace them with a new expressway that connected Portland's waterfront to the planned interstate freeway along Back Cove, now I-295 [Here's a more detailed history of the planning process behind Franklin Arterial].

So, Portland has coped for nearly four decades now with Franklin Arterial, a road designed as an expressway through the center of the city, with no sidewalks, fast traffic, few legal pedestrian crossings and no street life to speak of. It is a moat that divides downtown and the East End, a case study of the failures of urban renewal, a no-man's land surrounded by acres of parking lots and inaccessible "open space."

But here's the good news: there are serious efforts afoot to make Franklin Arterial better. Narrowing the street, adding bike paths and on-street parking, and slowing down the traffic could open up acres of developable land worth tens of millions of dollars (more than enough money to rebuild the street). All three "lost sites" proposals for Franklin Arterial proposed these ideas to some degree, and a joint Munjoy Hill/Bayside Neighborhood Association meeting later this spring (May 31, 6 PM at Franklin Towers) will discuss options for the future of the street.

In the meantime, here are the ideas from the Lost Sites exhibit:

The "Gateway Park" idea makes the open space in Franklin's median strip accessible and more inviting by offering pedestrian access through two underpasses beneath the traffic that would reconnect Oxford Street (one of the streets that had been disconnected by the Arterial's original construction). This would replace the dirt path and the two illegal road crossings that many Munjoy Hill residents currently use to get downtown.

The other two ideas proposed complete realignments of Franklin into a European-style boulevard. These proposals would restore the neighborhood street grids, open up acres of land for redevelopment, and turn Franklin into a more pedestrian-oriented, livable space. As an added bonus, a boulevard realignment would restore the historic Lincoln Park to its original size and proportions (construction of the Arterial sliced of 1/3rd of the park and made it a lot more difficult for East End residents to get to or enjoy the space).

As it stands now, Franklin Arterial blocks new development and diminishes property values in surrounding neighborhoods. Realigning and improving the street might cost tens of millions of dollars, but the new development that would follow would provide new property tax revenue and return the city's investment several times over. Portland's leaders and planners need to get to work and restore this "lost site" into a working asset.


Patrick Ian Banks said...

I've hated that gash even before I moved here. I took one look at a map of Portland when I still lived in Wyoming and knew instantly what that arterial must have done to the community. In any case, I too was excited by the possibilities on display at Aucocisco. (Though not the Little Digs. Those suck.) I'm so going to that workshop next month. It's a pity the Middle Street bend wasn't included in that exhibit, though. I stumbled across a magesterial "peoples history" if you will, of that little bit of urban geography not long ago. I don't know who this Nichlas Barker fellow is, but this is what he wrote: http://www.geocities.com/middle_street_portland_maine/introduction.htm
(Note that the buttons that link to each chapter are barely visible at the bottom of the page.) Urban renewal is but one chapter in this story. (Which should not be tucked away on some obscure geocities site.)
Oh, and that history of Portland Urban renewal you linked to? I've run across that before. Unfortunately the formating is all wonky on my browser. Weird. Have you read this one the People's Free Space put out recently?: http://www.peoplesfreespace.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=75&Itemid=1

Hope this isn't too long winded.

C Neal said...

Thanks for the comment and the links, Patrick. Yes, the urban renewal page was wonky here, too, but the point comes across: nobody likes Franklin Arterial. Hopefully our future urban planners are better at arranging streets and buildings than they are at arranging text and pictures on a web page.

See you next month on the lighted dance floor of the Franklin Towers,


Turboglacier said...

The Franklin Art makes me sad every time I see it. I spent much of my youth walking up & down Comm Ave in Boston's back bay, and I always wind up comparing them. They seem to be roughly the same length and proportions. Yet one such a gorgeous success, and the other such a failure. I am encouraged by the proposals for remedial action.