Portland’s Bayside Trail
New urbanism in Maine’s business, financial and retail capital
By Barry Sheff, P.E.
The city of portland web site proclaims the city’s goals and focus as “strengthening a remarkable city, building a community for life.” A recent example of “building community” is the Bayside Trail project, where municipal leaders, nonprofit organizations and the public have combined efforts to enhance the city’s liveability and support the tax base.
This summer, when construction of the Bayside Trail is complete, connections with the Eastern Promenade, Back Cove and Deering Oaks Park will be made, resulting in a bike/pedestrian trail loop around the peninsula – an idea set forth in 1905 in the city’s original parks plan.
Key players in making the Bayside Trail a reality are the city, the Maine Department of Transportation MaineDOT), Portland Trails, The Trust for Public Land, the Bayside Neighborhood Association and local business leaders – all of which have enthusiastically supported the project. Nan Cumming, executive director of Portland Trails, explained that pursuing this vision began in earnest more than 10 years ago. “Right from the start, this was an exciting and unique project full of challenges and opportunities,” Cumming said.
The project helps create a perimeter trail around the city. Rick Knowland, a senior planner with the city, explained, “The city’s vision was rooted in A New Vision for Bayside, adopted by the city council in 2000, to transform the area into a desirable location for multiple uses by providing office, retail and residential space.”
“Part of the Bayside vision,” Cumming added, “was multi-modal uses – highlighting transit, biking and walking.” Those multi-modal uses are essential aspects of the focus more and more cities have on “new urbanism,” defined by The Congress for New Urbanism as “walkable, mixed-use neighborhood development promoting sustainable communities and healthier living conditions.”
A century of planning
As early as 1905, Portland’s Parks Department noted an interest in creating a trail to link the city’s parks. Decades passed, and in 1987, Portland officials presented the Portland Shoreway Access Plan, that outlined opportunities to link the city’s park spaces. This planning effort gave birth to Portland Trails, providing the city with a nonprofit organization devoted to advocating for trails.
Over the next 10 years, trails around Back Cove, Capisic Pond and the Eastern Prom all became reality. Once the Eastern Prom Trail was open, thoughts turned once again to linking the city’s parks, including connecting the Eastern Prom to Deering Oaks Park.
Accomplishing that connection meant going right through the Bayside neighborhood, which up to that point, had not been a focus for the city. There were also potential environmental challenges as a result of decades of industrial operations. Forging through Bayside would not be easy. Over the years, the area had deteriorated and commercial development had slowed to a standstill. (Portland applied for and received an EPA brownfields grant to reclaim the site in 1996.) The city also needed to acquire the Union Branch rail line that ran through the neighborhood in order for the project to move forward.
MaineDOT stepped in to assist the city by purchasing the rail corridor. Then, in a land swap, the city purchased the corridor from MaineDOT and took full title in 2005. The city also acquired the rail yard parcels, completing the contiguous land chain between Elm Street and the Back Cove Trail. The Trust for Public Land assisted the city by purchasing land on Riverside Street to provide opportunities to relocate some of the industrial activity.
Bayside is located within a 100-year flood elevation, as defined by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Both Back Cove, a tidal body of water, and I-95 impact the site’s hydrology and create a “damming” effect. The shallow groundwater level – within approximately five feet of ground surface – creates storm water management challenges. At the same time, site soils had been impacted by years of industrial operations. Hydrogeologic studies and soil investigations revealed that contaminants were stable: they do not dissolve in water and therefore would not contaminate groundwater. Of concern, however, is skin contact and ingestion. To prevent either, a soil barrier has been constructed over the site.
All of these factors created a complex range of permitting requirements for the local site plan and the Maine Department of Environmental Protection storm water permit. Woodard & Curran led the permitting and design efforts, developing the construction documents in collaboration with other design professionals. To address the storm water challenges, Woodard & Curran applied low impact development (LID) strategies to manage storm water as close to where it falls, thereby minimizing runoff. The trail will have a series of rain gardens incorporating plantings and soil media to help treat the water.
The Bayside Trail construction will be completed this summer. (Shaw Bros. Construction is the primary contractor on the project.) It has been funded through state and federal sources; however, private fundraising is still an important part of the picture. “We’re in the midst of raising $1.5 million for amenities,” Cumming explained, “so the trail will have finishing touches – trees and plantings, signage and public art. A maintenance endowment will also be needed to help the city maintain the trail.”
Everyone involved sees MaineDOT’s support, particularly in helping the city purchase the rail corridor, as pivotal to the project’s success. Jim Gooch of the Trust for Public Land added, “Without any one of the partners, this project probably wouldn’t be taking place. The lesson here is that no one entity can create something like this on its own.”
Cumming agreed: “We’ve all shared in the heavy lifting. There have been challenges, and we’ve turned to one another to resolve them.”
Without this “heavy lifting,” it’s very likely that the area would have been parceled out, and the opportunity for an important bicycle-pedestrian link in a mixed-use neighborhood development – and the opportunity to “strengthen a remarkable city, build a community for life” – would have been lost.
Barry Sheff, P.E., is senior vice president at Woodard & Curran.