Fixing an Urban Mistake

"Franklin Boulevard," from the Architalx exhibit Lost Sites. (images/courtesy Aucocisco Gallery)

Fixing an Urban Mistake
By Patrick Banks

The Franklin Arterial is just plain awful. This horrible urban gash, concocted as a way to revitalize a dying downtown by making it more readily accessible by car, sunders the Portland Peninsula in two. The geniuses who built it back in the ’60s obviously didn’t give a shit about pedestrians, because not only are sidewalks a rare sight along its edges, this Berlin Wall of traffic severed no less than four streets that once connected the East and West End. And the few east/west streets that were left intact? Crossing them is Not Fun. It is an extreme sport to walk from Bayside or the Old Port to Munjoy Hill – especially if you follow the ghost-paths of Federal or Oxford Streets (the well-worn dirt trails attest that this is a common occurrence).

Franklin wasn’t always such a big “fuck you” to urban living. Once upon a time it was a pleasant, if down-at-the-heels, neighborhood street. Alas, the automobile had to be accommodated and the rest is tragic history. But the good news is that Franklin can be made pleasant once again. 

Earlier this year, Aucocisco Gallery hosted an exhibit called Lost Sites, sponsored by Architalx, the architecture and design public education organization. Local artists were invited to reimagine several such sites around Portland, including the median strip of our beloved traffic artery. 

These pieces will be on view again at a May 31 workshop at Franklin Towers called “Creating a New Vision for Franklin Arterial.” Herewith are the most “serious” proposals from the exhibit.

Gateway Park at Franklin Arterial
This proposal focuses on a reconnected Oxford Street and a new park, but little else to the north or south. It does very little to render Franklin any less of a barrier than it currently is. True, eastern and western Oxford Streets are reunited via what appears to be a pedestrian-oriented road. The trees, benches, reflecting pool and wind turbines depicted would also make for nice additions to the urban environment. Yet this park is still bisected by crass old Franklin. I fail to see how that will make this park any more popular than the median strip we have now. Gateway Park has some good ideas that might be better incorporated into a restored Lincoln Park. Otherwise I’m underwhelmed.

Revitalizing Franklin & Across the Great Divide
The best way to describe these two proposals is to call them Little Digs. Much like the “Big” version in Boston, part of Franklin will be submerged underground. One plus is that some connectivity would be restored between east and west under each proposal. Both would also add additional green space – Lincoln Park would be restored to its former glory, for instance. Furthermore, “Revitalizing Franklin” offers some intriguing uses for all that new green space. Not only would new trail space and recreation areas be created, but a natural storm water filtration system would be built, as would a community agricultural space. 

“Across the Great Divide” proposes new mixed residential and commercial buildings be built on reclaimed land. All that is very well – for the limited area between Oxford and Federal Street. Federal Street doesn’t appear to be restored under the “Revitalizing Franklin” proposal. Nor would either proposal be much more aesthetically pleasing than the status quo. The approach tunnels will be barriers to pedestrian traffic and eyesores to boot. 

Arterial Farm
You know, I’m all for urban agriculture and sustainability and all that. Sadly, all this proposal does is shove all four lanes to one side so there is room for a long, skinny farm. Nice try, but it ain’t gonna work.

Franklin Street Regional Boulevard, Franklin Boulevard and Franklin Avenue

Now we’re cookin’. Each of these proposals has, to varying degrees, accepted that Franklin is here to stay as a traffic artery in some shape or form. These are, counter-intuitively, the most pedestrian-friendly proposals in the exhibition. At least that’s how it looks on paper.

The strongest proposal in these regards is the one simply titled “Franklin Boulevard.” At its center is still a four-lane roadway, divided down the middle by a central median. But that’s where the similarities between the Boulevard and the Arterial begin and end, for on each side of the central artery would be tree-lined medians running its full length. These medians separate the main roadway from local access lanes. Automobiles will be able to make use of these lanes for parking as well as entering and exiting the main boulevard to and from the surrounding neighborhoods. 

These local access lanes will be considerably safer ground, since local auto traffic will be limited to a pedestrianesque pace. (Again, at least on paper.) Lancaster, Oxford, and Federal Streets are all fully reconnected, while Newbury Street may only tie in with the local connectors. Lincoln Park will be more-or-less fully restored – as is only right. 

Then there are the sidewalks – the wonderful, wonderful sidewalks. What is now No Man’s Land will be transformed into a pedestrian-oriented environment. The whole length of Franklin Boulevard thus becomes ripe territory for mixed-use and residential development. To paraphrase the late Jane Jacobs, what was once a barrier would become a seam connecting East End to West End, Bayside to the eastern waterfront.

Franklin Boulevard makes me hot and bothered – in a good way. The other two, similar proposals, “Franklin Avenue” and “Franklin Street Regional Boulevard,” are also nice, but lack the same punch as “Franklin Boulevard.” Still, they capture the gist of what needs to be done if the Franklin Arterial is to ever stop sucking. 

One proposal that was not on display in Lost Sites can be found in the draft of the city’s official Peninsula Traffic Study. If the traffic study were to be implemented as seen in the draft I saw, the artery would actually be widened, further severing east from west. 

Portlanders can ill afford to ignore what may or may not lie in store for Franklin Arterial’s future. I, for one, cannot and will not abide any proposal that makes it more of a barrier than it already is. I don’t want these ideas floated in the Lost Sites exhibit to be lost themselves. Portland can do better.
Patrick Banks is a freelance writer in Portland.

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