Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Boom: Portland's Spoils of the Naughts

The naughts are almost over. This was the decade of the real estate bubble, but it would be easy to assume that the bubble passed by Portland, Maine. After all, the city's skyline, as viewed from Falmouth or across the harbor in South Portland, hasn't changed much in the past 10 years.

But take a closer look, by walking along the city's main streets and through its neighborhoods, and it's clear that Portland is substantially newer and more vibrant than it was in 1999, when I graduated from Bonny Eagle High School and left for college in that other Portland. Many of the buildings are the same, but they've been refurbished and re-inhabited with households and businesses that care more about them. And elsewhere, abandoned lots and under-utilized parking spaces have given way to new housing and businesses.

The Portland peninsula has sprouted dozens of new buildings in the past decade. Here are five of my picks for the best, in no particular order (I'll post five more in a follow-up post next week):

  • Bayside East. Corner of Smith and Oxford Streets, East Bayside. Designed by Scott Teas, TFH Architects. Completed 2008.

    While prosperity arrived in most of Portland's neighborhoods during the 2000s, East Bayside was largely left out. The neighborhood is centrally-located geographically, but it remains isolated thanks to the lousy ideas of 1960s urban renewal: a monopoly of government-owned housing and dead-end streets cut off by the wretched Franklin Arterial. It's Portland's most Detroit-like neighborhood.

    Bayside East is a another affordable housing project, but unlike its older neighbors, it doesn't look like one. The south-facing patio works well as a pleasant public space for the building's residents, and the solar hot water heaters take a prominent place as a sort of awning on the top floor.

    It's not at all flashy, but of all of Portland's new buildings, this one might be the most successful at integrating itself into the scale and context of Portland's central-city neighborhoods. It goes a long way towards healing East Bayside's tattered urban fabric.

  • 280 Fore Street, by SMRT Architects. Completed 2004.

    There was a time when banks invested in good, quality buildings to establish a public trust in the solidity of their institutions.

    During the 2000s, though, most banks were content to put up cheap offices ringed with drive-thrus. Banks literally sought to emulate fast-food joints, both in the facile idiocy of their products and in the shittiness of their architecture. And then they collapsed.

    Bangor Savings Bank wasn't immune from this impulse - they built Burger Bank franchises out on Brighton Ave. and over the bridge in South Portland's Mill Creek Strip Mall - but at least they put some effort into their downtown Portland branch and corporate offices. It's a quality building, and the curved acute angle of its northern corner adds a dynamic presence to the corner of Franklin and Fore Streets. I don't mind admitting that my admiration for the building led me to choose this bank over its competition.

  • 490 Congress St., by Jim Sterling. Completed 2007.

    Like the W.L. Blake Building addition below, this is an attractive modernist structure that fits in well with its historic surroundings on Congress Street. It's even more striking in the context of what it replaced, a pair of half-abandoned 2-story hovels that stuck out like a missing incisor in Congress Street's smile.

    The wide glass windows and striking metal siding probably make this building the city's most stereotypical example of naughts architecture. It's clearly making a hard sales pitch for "loft living" - you can even buy Eames chairs and contemporary art from the ground-floor retail tenants. Still, it's a damned attractive sales pitch, and even if it's a bit cliched I much prefer this to the urban abandonment that prevailed in the latter half of the last century.

  • W.L. Blake Building Addition, 79 Commercial St. By David Lloyd of Archetype Architects. Completed 2001.

    This was one of the first new buildings of the naughts, and it set a good precedent. The new building respects its historic neighbors on either side by adopting the same scale and massing. But it stops short of imitating their brick cladding and granite sills and lintels (unlike most other new buildings in the city, regrettably) with fine-looking building materials of our own era.

    The view from inside the offices must be incredible. But the view from the street ain't bad, either.

  • Unity Village, Stone, Oxford, and Cumberland Streets. By Winton Scott Architects. Completed 2001.

    At the beginning of this decade, the city was in the midst of a severe housing shortage, thanks to decades of pointlessly-restrictive zoning and a resulting lack of investment.

    Unity Village was one of the city's first proactive efforts to turn things around. City Hall offered up three city-owned parking lots behind city hall to developer Richard Berman (disclosure: I helped build his company's website) for a new, mixed-income housing complex. Today, it's a place where the newly-homeless can live comfortably and unassumingly next to white-collar downtown office workers and immigrant families. The homes have abundant porches that mesh the private life of the households with the vibrant public life of the narrow street and a nearby playground.

    If Unity Village hadn't been as successful as it is, the City could easily have slid back into the old habit of Not-In-My-Backyard zoning, which would have effectively stymied most of the other projects listed here. Instead, it helped spark the broader revitalization of Bayside. Unity Village demonstrated to Portlanders that new development - even if it brought poor people into the neighborhood - could be an improving asset for the community.

No comments: