A Revised Thompson’s Point Plan Draws Praise

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Last week, attending the Planning Board workshop (1/28/14) on a new Master Development Plan for Thompson’s Point being presented by Chris Thompson and his team, I was struck – perhaps not unexpectedly – by what a set of contrasts it makes to Midtown. The comparison, which mostly favors the Thompson’s Point plan, is natural because these are the first two Master Development Plans the city has received since adopting the standards last spring.

The very presentation of a new development plan – discarding an earlier plan the Planning Board had approved – was refreshing. The new plan was premised partly on the purchase of additional acreage – Suburban Propane land along the site’s northern edge – but the new plan was also based, as one sensitive observer noted, on “a new mindset.”

The original layout clustered buildings toward the site’s water-surrounded southern tip. It had as few organizing ideas as Midtown’s four, same-height tower blocks and two laid down garage blocks, and as little interest.

By contrast, the new layout for Thompson’s Point ramps building heights up from the low Union Station shed at the southern tip through the central brick buildings three or so stories high on up and north to the future arena, hotel, and residential tower.

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A central pedestrian corridor connects to the open shed from Union Station (on the left) and the open lawn and concert venue (to the right).

The positive effects of this spread-out, stepping up are many. Primary benefits include every building having a view over the others to the water, and the tallest, broadest shadows falling northward onto the railroad tracks at the northern edge of the site. This sequence also allows for creative phasing, both in content and timing. The shed may be quickly fabricked over for concerts this summer. Later buildings may shift in size and purpose as demand and the economy shift.

Since all the buildings have pass-throughs between them, walkers, too, will have views across the site and to the water. (Do we have to spell out the contrasts with Midtown?) In fact, concern about walkers dominates the southern half of the project. The boat landing at the site’s tip is linked to a central common by a wide, spinal walkway.

The walkway passes by the open-sided shed that’s envisioned as a concert venue. A wide adjacent lawn is envisioned for recreating and picnic seating for concert listening (think Tanglewood). This seriously large, seriously sunny open space contrasts with the diminutive, shadow-draped building notches that Midtown offers for “open space.”

A model shows how buildings step up from the southern tip of Thompson’s Point.

A model shows how buildings step up from the southern tip of Thompson’s Point.

The whole of the Point’s new plan is truly multi-modal, not only being located across from the bus and railroad station but with a planned walkover of the tracks directly to the planned Red Claws arena. A walkway connection around the I-295 bridge should be included in future refinements.

And the site will be truly multi-use, going beyond residential, retail, and car parking – surface and structured – to include entertainment (the shed and the arena), education (circus training), workplaces (sports medicine and office complexes), restaurants, and a hotel, at least in current thinking.

For bonus points, the new plan preserves chunks of the three historic brick buildings at the center of the site. In fact, it makes them a focal point, where the entry drive ends by looping around a grassy common in their midst.

As for the presentation itself, somehow Pat Carroll was able to generate a flyover model that included the transportation center and other off-site buildings. He’s even promising a pedestrian-eye virtual walk-around for the public hearing.

While still concerned about access, most Planning Board members reacted to the plan with the word “exciting.” Jack Soley had one reservation, arguing in effect that the site is being underdeveloped. “I see this [site] as wonderful for many more residential units” than the 125 proposed, he said.

Unlike another mega-project now in the works, Thompson’s Point, whatever its final form, promises to enliven the city. Refreshing indeed!

(To see the full Thompson’s Point Plan and city staff reaction, go to http://www.portlandmaine.gov/planning.htm)

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