Journalism: Urbanism: Urban Conditional: Urban conditional: You Can't Get There From Here — The real reason Bayside is heading the wrong way

May 24, 2018

You Can't Get There From Here — The real reason Bayside is heading the wrong way

by Zack Barowitz

Like the picture of Dorian Gray, Portland’s Bayside area represents a dark flipside to the cutesiness of the touristy Old Port.

A recent Press Herald jeremiad on West Bayside's quality of life concerns featured two dozen sensational documentary images of a public realm marred by intravenous drug use, spice zombies, homelessness, fist fights, and sleeping on the streets (as well as tales of public fornication and defecation — thankfully not depicted in photographs).

Residents old and new are more than ready to redecorate.

Situated along the peninsula’s northern downslope (the “other” side of Congress Street), Baysides East and West have not kept pace with the gentrification in other parts of the city. Factors such as the building of Franklin Arterial (and its wholesale destruction of neighborhoods, triggering displacement and blight); the development of public housing that shelters people but doesn’t inspire imagination; industrial decline; location of the homeless shelter; and the botched Midtown development have all contributed to disinvestment over the years.

Despite it all, real estate prices are rising. Everyone is watching and waiting for West Bayside to become the “next hot neighborhood.” The city, for its part, is trying to encourage reinvestment as it sells off land parcels and mulls a suitable place to relocate the overcrowded Oxford Street Shelter. (Any takers?).

Central to all of this is something many residents have never heard of, the Bayside Transportation Master Plan. 94 pages and many years in the making, the report is rich in analysis, diagrams, data, and technical drawings. In many respects, there is much to like about the study for improving quality of life, as the engineers did their thing with street plans and cross sections depicting bike lanes, shorter crosswalks, new trees, and better sidewalks. The plan has been recommended to the full City Council by the Sustainability and Transportation Committee (consisting of Councilors Brian Batson, Belinda Ray, and Spencer Thibodeau).

But despite the comprehensiveness, the report barely addresses a significant factor in the area’s decline: The superabundance of southbound one-way streets that make it nearly impossible to drive into West Bayside (and neighboring Parkside) from Cumberland Avenue, its main thoroughfare. This “lack of connectivity” hampers the ability of people to access work, shopping, and recreation — and vice versa. Over time, these broken connections lead to decay.

Before the construction of Franklin Street Arterial in the 1960s, one could take Oxford Street from Washington Avenue to Portland Street and eventually outer Congress Street. That’s not an option today. Of the nineteen streets off Cumberland between Franklin and Congress, only four take you to the Portland Street/Park Avenue thoroughfare. As a result, westbound motorists on Cumberland Avenue are funneled up to Congress Street only to jog back via St. John.

At issue are Successive Homo-Directional One-Way Streets (SHoDOWS — and yes, I made that up) that make turning off Cumberland Avenue so difficult. Typically, and for obvious reasons, one-way streets alternate their direction. But that is not necessarily the case in Portland. If you want to get into West Bayside (and neighboring Parkside) from Cumberland Ave., you pretty much need to be born there.

No one knows why the area deviated from the standard practice of alternating one-way streets, but a likely hypothesis (offered by my partner Caroline Losneck) is that it was installed during the auto-centric era when the city's urban highways (like State, High, Elm, and Preble) were thought to be the way.

If the intention of the SHoDOWS was to preserve neighborhoods by directing traffic out of them, the actual effect was to fracture them. The lack of connectivity isn’t merely an inconvenience to motorists. It denies access and leads to isolation, blight, disinvestment, and ossification on the street and neighborhood level. 

The council should politely thank staff and the consultants for their hard work on the Bayside Plan, but ask them to come out of the SHoDOWS and “take another look at the poor and confusing north-south street connectivity/circulation off Cumberland Avenue.” This will help mend the broken grid and to give the area a happy face.