November 19, 2016
Urban Conditional: Sick Building: The Maine Medical Center's $512,000,000 Expansion
by Zack Barowitz
Maine Medical Center dug through its couch cushions and came up with $512 million to spend on an expansion of its Portland campus. Although the plan doesn't add any new beds, it does call for 128 new rooms — which the hospital must have in order to meet new demands of patient care and stay competitive in a growing industry.
In addition to being a renowned hospital, Maine Medical Center is one of the largest employers in the state. So when it says it wants to build, it's fairly easy for officials to respond "how high?"
MMC's proposed expansion will create hundreds of jobs in the health care, construction and IT sectors. But those jobs come at a cost, and those that pay are unlikely to reap many benefits; a large hospital's effect on a neighborhood can be akin to having a cement block dropped on a flower pot.
So why is this?
Hospitals are notoriously among the most difficult types of buildings to design. The sheer volume of people, technology and movement, coupled with the turnover of all of the above, make their containment nearly impossible. Throw in the challenge of creating a building that is both sterile and uplifting, and it's enough to drive the most talented designer to review RFPs for wastewater treatment plants.
Given the difficulties and contingencies of designing a hospital, it's little wonder that their exteriors often appear an afterthought. Situated high upon the Western Promenade, Maine Med's current configuration is an undistinguished agglomeration of stark Modernist edifices and brutalist parking structures crowded around a (somewhat gloomy) original 1874 structure. Fortress-like facades have rendered blight beyond the castle walls to the boundary streets below. Gilman, Congress, Crescent, Wescott, Bramhall and Forest streets are all fairly run-down and have been for decades despite their proximity to some of the most valuable real estate in Maine.
Portland-area residents have every reason to be concerned with the planned Maine Med expansion; the shadows will loom longer, the winds will whip colder, parking garages will become larger, and the traffic will grow denser — adding to the spread of decay.
Ironically, the westward roll of commercial and residential development along Congress Street from Longfellow Square to Thompson's Point is hot, with hundreds of proposed housing units, restaurants and (of course) breweries. The break in the path is smack in the area designated for the bulk of the expansion. The quarter-mile stretch of Congress Street from Salvage BBQ to Bramhall Square has just two commercial spaces (La Bodega Latina and Portland Glass), not including the permanently "unfinished" storefronts in the MMC parking garage. The blight is attributable to a monotonous pedestrian experience: a steep hill, fast traffic and bleak streetscape of retaining walls and parking garages. It should come as little consolation that a recent beautification effort included hanging banners declaring competency in "Urology," "Gynecology" and "Cancer."
Were this projected expansion slated for an isolated green expanse (such as the MMC Scarborough campus), the peripheral pedestrian experience would be of little consequence. But in a dense urban environment, great care must be taken to scale and form but also to use.
Far from being a monument that sucks in automobiles, the hospital necessarily should learn how to interact with the street, starting with an improved pedestrian experience that heals the neighborhoods on its borders. Street-level commercial development — visitors' cafe, gift shop, pharmacy, restaurant and even a bookstore — will not only better serve hospital customers but make for a healthy bottom line, both for the institution and the city as a whole.