The dense, urban part of Portland starts just before Woodford’s Corner. When I say I live there, friends on the peninsula respond that Woodford’s sucks. But without the horrific traffic that’s now a hallmark of the neighborhood, that corner could be the heart of a vibrant, urban, walkable neighborhood stretching from Deering High to Back Cove to the University of Southern Maine, and it could provide the space for the commercial and residential growth that the city craves.
Unfortunately the draft preliminary plans for remaking Forest Avenue unveiled to the community last week show that the Maine Department of Transportation still sees residents as obstacles in its Route 302 car-moving scheme.
What if Route 302 ended after Morrill’s Corner and the rest of Forest Avenue became an urban boulevard? Where now Woodford’s is an acre of confusing pavement and accelerating cars, I see outdoor dining and public art. Increasing property values could drive the development of new apartment buildings for workers freed from the hellish commute. They can work in the new office buildings and shops and drink in the microbreweries that replace vacant car dealerships. Families with strollers and dogs would cruise along widened sidewalks, crossing Forest to shop and socialize without uncommon bravery.
I frequently think about walking over to PJ Merrill Seafood and Veranda market to grab my dinner supplies, but the thought of crossing Forest intimidates me. Before I know it, my car is clogging up Forest Avenue as I make my way to Hannaford. I know children who have to walk across Forest to get to Ocean Elementary School, and they speak of it as a harrowing enterprise. Many families no doubt drive the three-block stretch of Forest instead.
The Maine Department of Transportation talks about “complete streets” with bikes and pedestrians treated equally to cars. But the department’s plan is to add lanes. This leads to the classic racing scenario, and it’s just not welcoming for the community. Suburban history proves this will entice more sprawl toward Windham, meaning more drivers — and, pretty soon, the same clogged commute with more frustrated people. Our neighborhood will be further isolated, and nothing will be solved.
There are many examples from similar arterial roads where creative engineers and designers, those who put place-making foremost, have built great locales that still facilitate commuting. It is possible with good design and a less confusing configuration to move the same commuters in a similar amount of time, but at a slower, more steady speed. Many communities have reclaimed arterial roads with multiway boulevards by placing landscaped medians in the middle, reducing the traffic to one lane in either direction, and allowing cars to park along the road. Bike infrastructure can be part of the solution, but as an avid bike commuter, I know most of us will still use alternative routes, so maybe we can sacrifice our Forest Avenue interests for those of pedestrians and transit users. In the Boston area, Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge and Broadway in Somerville are good analogies, and the planners of the Franklin Avenue redesign are pushing in the right direction.
If cars go at a steady 20 mph from Morrill’s Corner to I-295, it takes six minutes. Let’s say we get the lights timed so you only have to stop twice for a minute each. It might be slightly longer than the current commute, but it will be a lot more pleasant. Instead of speeding up and slamming on the brakes, you would wave to neighbors eating on the expanded sidewalks. And maybe people driving out of town would be less stressed so they would stop for Thurston’s frozen custard.
In new Woodford’s, kids will go alone from Deering Center to friends’ houses in Back Cove. People from Windham and from the West End will want to come have a beer on a rooftop patio overlooking the Cove to downtown. We will jog from USM to Baxter Boulevard, and crossing Forest will offer a pleasant opportunity to greet a friend crossing the other way.
This is a vibrant, creative community, and it must be viewed as an integral part of Portland. For Maine’s economy to succeed, Portland needs smart residential and commercial growth, and Woodford’s is the logical spot. We might only get one stab at this for the next 50 years. If the state cannot yet comprehend modern urban design, then the city should pull the plug on this project. A new generation of creative designers and engineers will see this as a challenging but solvable puzzle.
Andy Schmidt lives in the Deering Center/Woodford’s Corner neighborhood of Portland.