Plan envisions changes to Forest Ave. in Portland

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PORTLAND — Narrower intersections, bike lanes, street furniture and better – perhaps even artistic – lighting are among recommendations to make Forest Avenue more friendly to pedestrians and bicycle riders.

The suggestions are part of a conceptual plan called “Transforming Forest Avenue.”

The study, recently posted on the city website, must be vetted by two subcommittees before being presented to the Planning Board and City Council.

City Planner Molly Casto said the plan will position the city to take advantage of transportation funding as it becomes available, and guide private redevelopment efforts.

“I think this rich in information and ideas,” Casto said. “We need concept plans like this in place to position us to pursue funding. Funding opportunities come up quickly. To have a road map like this will allow us to take advantage of that.”

The study, conducted by IBI Group in consultation with Gorrill Palmer and Barton & Gingold, cost $100,000; $20,000 came from local tax dollars, while the rest came from Federal Highway Administration funding allocated by the state.

When the project started in January, planners anticipated an 11-month time-line. But Casto said a change is state policy about carryover funding from one fiscal year to another accelerated the process.

Anyone who has driven Forest Avenue, especially during rush hour, understands its shortcomings. Thousands of vehicles a day use the four-lane street, where pedestrians take a risk to get from one side to the other.

The study divided Forest Avenue into three sections, concentrating on the Interstate 295 intersection and Woodfords Corner. It suggests ways to incorporate transit-supportive development and “complete streets” principals, the latter of which consists of making roads safe and friendly for everyone, not just vehicles.

The study recommends the most dramatic changes in the area of Park Avenue and the I-295 overpass.

Recommendations include steeper I-295 off ramps to slow down traffic entering Forest Avenue – an effort Casto said is designed to reduce rear-end collisions.

It also suggests creating a wide, landscaped median  from Bedford Street/Baxter Boulevard to Marginal Way, as a pedestrian refuge. 

While painted bike “sharrow lanes” – shared roadways – are suggested along the corridor, it also suggests a grade- or color-separated bike lane and bike boxes at traffic lights near Deering Oaks Park to protect cyclists.

Reducing travel lanes near the post office on Forest Avenue is also recommended as are better pedestrian facilities, such as street furniture, bus shelters and art.

The plan also envisions better lighting beneath the I-295 overpass and includes several renderings of artistic lighting or artwork to make walking beneath the bridge feel more safe.

“Right now, it’s very dark and creates a sense of separation,” Casto said. “You want to convey this is a safe place to walk. This is one of the city’s primary gateways. This could be a great opportunity.”

Casto said the Maine Department of Transportation agreed to put planned improvements to the interchange on hold, pending the study. It is currently reviewing the recommendations to see if any may be incorporated, she said.

Woodfords Corner

Other significant improvements are eyed for Woodfords Corner, which not only has a high volume of traffic, but also train traffic. Planning documents indicate six to eight freight trains a day pass through the intersection, which will also have to accommodate three Downeaster passenger trains by 2013.

The study recommends banning parking during the evening rush hour along the northbound lane of Forest Avenue between Woodford Street and Ocean Avenue to allow for another travel lane.

Casto said the added evening travel lane could reduce traffic delays by 70 percent.

“That’s a significant improvement,” she said.

Left-turn bans during evening rush hour onto Saunders Street and Vannah Avenue are also recommended. If enforced, the study recommends reducing the soundbound receiving lane through Woodfords Corner to one lane until Revere Street.

The road would then be narrowed with a pedestrian “bulb-out,” which would create a small plaza. Another small plaza could be created with another pedestrian bulb-out near the Dunkin’ Donuts on Deering Avenue.

Although the project considered a form-based zoning code instead of a use-based code, the study does not recommend any significant zone changes along the corridor. Instead, it suggests that zoning be tweaked to incorporate form-based principals.

Casto said there are opportunities to provide incentives, both regulatory and financial, to encourage infill development along Forest Avenue to make it more people and business friendly.

“It’s got such wonderful bones,” Casto said. “There’s no reason this area can’t thrive.”

But it appears as though traffic congestion will remain an issue along Forest Avenue. Traffic volumes will not be reduced by the plan, which aims only to make non-motorized transportation more attractive.

More than 18,700 vehicles travel along the 1.4-mile study area, which contains 10 signalized intersections, all but three of which are coordinated.

“The challenge remains that without dedicated facilities, bus operations will experience additional delays related to the congestion on the corridor, and their ability to compete as a travel choice will be limited without regional-scale changes in transportation policy,” the study said.

Background materials indicate there currently are two buses that service 17 stops on Forest Avenue. Commuters can get bus service every 20 minutes or so, making it one of the best-served areas in the city.

But that falls short of the 15-minute threshold needed to entice “choice” riders, the report states.

Casto said she expects to solicit more public feedback from the concept plan, which she still considers a work-in-progress, even though the consultants are no longer involved.

The plan is still being discussed with an advisory group and will be forwarded to the city’s Bike and Pediestrian Committee and the City Council’s Transportation Committee.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow hom on Twitter: @randybillings

Sidebar Elements

Inventory takes stock of Portland’s working waterfront

PORTLAND — City planners have completed an inventory of the working waterfront that will be the baseline for future policy decisions.

The inventory comes on the heals of changes to the Waterfront Central Zone, which spans from, but does not include, the Maine State Pier to the International Marine Terminal.

The zoning changes were designed to allow pier owners more flexibility in getting tenants for their pier buildings, which in turn would help them generate more revenue to maintain the piers.

The City Council enacted changes last December that created a Non-Marine Use Overlay Zone for new non-marine marine developments, with the exception of residences, within 150 feet of Commercial Street. Permitted uses were expanded to include restaurants and retail stores, among others.

Outside of the overlay zone, pier owners can lease up to 45 percent of their first-floor space to non-marine uses, but only after aggressively and unsuccessfully marketing that space to marine uses.

“Between passage of the amended text in December 2010 and completion of this inventory data collection in May 2011, there have been no applications for change of use and, to staff’s knowledge, no significant building permits issued,” the report states.

The WCZ is currently home to the Portland Fish Pier, 14 private pier owners and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, as well as the the majority of the city’s commercial fishing fleet, tourist excursion vessels and other marine and non-marine businesses.

There is about 375,000 square feet of ground-floor building space outside of the overlay zone, 75 percent of which is available to marine uses, including storage. Staff estimates that nearly 10 percent of that space is empty.

Chandler’s Wharf, a residential condominium that ignited the drive to tighten the city’s marine zoning rules, accounts for nearly half of the non-marine ground-floor space in the WCZ.

Meanwhile, there is more than 1 million square feet, or about 24 acres, of open space within the zone. Nearly all of that is on the Gulf of Maine Research Institute site, which makes about 83 percent of it available for marine uses.

Staff recommends the city purchase new software to allow the city to track building permits by zone and work on developing an integrated Global Information System.

The report includes a reference to vessel inventories used by staff during the WCZ process. That inventory said there were 141 commercial fishing vessels, 70 percent of which were for lobstering. There were 34 non-fishing commercial vessels and 219 non-commercial vessels.

The full report, which includes pier-specific details, is available online.

— Randy Billings