PORTLAND, Maine — A team of university researchers from California wrapped up a weeklong intensive study and report on Portland’s India Street neighborhood Monday, telling area residents it could be revitalized as an internationally known “ecodistrict.”
Professor Stephen Wheeler of University of California, Davis, and three of his students told a small audience of neighborhood stakeholders their section of the city should be home to a landmark complex run almost exclusively by on-site renewable energy, as well as frequent pocket parks and rooftop gardens that could make the spot a green tourism destination.
“Sustainable neighborhoods,” Wheeler said. “To see the total package is rare, and we’d love to see India Street pioneer that for Maine, the East Coast.”
The India Street neighborhood has become a focus for Portland planners over the past year as development interest in the area picked up. Residents have partnered with city officials to work on a vision for the neighborhood that will be used as guidelines during what many see as a looming wave of new projects.
Already in recent years, part of the former Jordan’s Meats factory property was converted into a mixed-use Hampton Inn-based development, and 94 luxury condominiums in the Bay House project on nearby Middle Street are due to become ready for occupancy this month.
That activity follows a since-scuttled proposal by billionaire hedge fund investor S. Donald Sussman to construct an ambitious six-story condominium complex abutting Franklin Street.
Over the past year, city and neighborhood leaders have sought to get out in front of the development boom as it picks up more momentum, first convincing the Sustain Southern Maine coalition to use a portion of its recently awarded $1.6 million in federal grant money to conduct a pilot study of the area, then applying to take part in Portland (Ore.) State University’s prestigious Urban Sustainability Accelerator program.
As part of the latter program, the Oregon-based university commissioned Wheeler’s team to visit for a weeklong intensive review and make a slate of recommendations to help guide the neighborhood’s development future. In January, a retail and market specialist will be sent by the program to study what types of storefronts and businesses could thrive in the area.
The city created an India Street Neighborhood Advisory Committee last month to consider the consultants’ suggestions and devise a series of recommendations on policies and ordinance changes for the City Council to consider for the area.
“The relaunch of a planning effort for this urban district holds much promise to build on its unique assets and to learn more from its context,” said City Councilor Kevin Donoghue, who also serves as the advisory committee co-chairman, in a statement. “What we have before us is a tremendous opportunity to enhance its historic charm and to develop strategies to ensure it becomes an inclusive and sustainable neighborhood for our city. Broad local participation, as well as the invaluable outside eye offered by the team from UC Davis, is helping us make a great start.”
As many developers have noticed, the neighborhood is ripe for revitalization, Wheeler said. But it also must overcome a recent history of ill-planned development to reach that goal.
“Portland, Maine, has not been on the forefront of progressive development,” said Wheeler, who has long visited the city annually because his mother lives here. “A lot of development is overscaled. There’s been 50 years of not-so-great development. Franklin Street was a big mistake, for example.”
The California-based university design team suggested all-but-eliminating the 80-foot grassed median currently dividing the four lanes of Franklin Street, arguing it simply widens the already hard-to-cross arterial without offering the public any usable green space. Instead, the team suggested moving all four lanes to the west and using the extra 80 feet of space closer to the neighborhood for pedestrian or bike traffic and more usable green space.
Sahoko Yui, a doctoral student with the university’s Department of Human Ecology’s Landscape Architecture Program, told residents at a Monday presentation at the Portland Public Library that the team envisioned a so-called “demonstration building” that could utilize innovative technologies like geothermal heating and cooling, or solar panels.
The building — which the team placed at the corner of India and Middle streets for the sake of hypothetical mapping — could serve as a local food co-op and housing complex.
The team also called for rain gardens, rooftop gardens and the replacement of about 30 percent of the neighborhood’s on-street parking spaces with “parklets,” small islands of vegetation meant to help perpetuate the area’s green identity.
“We understand [removing parking] is a controversial thing to recommend, and how much we would do that would have to be worked out,” Wheeler said. “But it’s not a very green environment there currently. It’s a fairly hardscaped neighborhood.”
Other suggestions included adding historical markers to signify the neighborhood’s place as the area’s first settlement. Wheeler said that while capital investment would be needed to accomplish some of what the team suggested, other changes could be included in the neighborhood zoning — measures requiring developers to include a certain amount of affordable housing, park space or investment in green infrastructure, for instance.
“Code changes are cheap. They may be controversial, but all you need is a vote by the City Council,” he said, adding, “I think Portland is in a place now where it can ask for what it wants.”