The Hyatt Place on Fore Street was completed this year.
Once upon a time, Portland had a beautiful train station, Union Station, at the base of Congress on St. John Street. Completed in 1888, the Gothic architectural treasure (which included a 138-foot clock tower) symbolized the heyday of rail travel before being demolished in 1961, when it was replaced by an ugly strip mall that still sits on the former site of the city’s and state’s primary gateway.
This demolition became symbolic of Portland’s urban renewal plan—the economic tool in vogue through the 1950s and into the 1960s. Cities across the country were focused on clearing out obstacles standing in the way of “progress” for the purpose of enticing suburbanites (many who had exited in droves after WWII) back downtown to shop and work. What had originally been considered “slum clearance,” according to the Portland Renewal Authority’s 1962 Annual Report, later was considered part of the overall urban renewal push by the city, kick-started by federal dollars appropriated through legislation like the Housing Act of 1949 (and subsequent acts). The administration of urban renewal was carried out by the Planning Board, and other organizations including the Portland Renewal Authority, and the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, “under whose auspices, a group of community leaders formed a Downtown Task Force, which is maintaining a continuing interest in the execution of this program.”
Union Station wasn’t the only victim of that architectural purge 50 years ago. The city’s urban renewal plan also included construction of four major arterials into and out of Portland. While never fully implemented (the only one built was Franklin Arterial), decades later that car-centric model still afflicts Portland’s ability to lessen dependency on automobile travel. This month, plans were revealed to reverse the destruction of neighborhoods and the division of the city that made way for the arterial when it opened in 1970.
Dating back to its founding, Portland’s economic model was one that relied on finding ways to extract value from perishable resources—trees; the ocean; and later, manufacturing—and direct that value elsewhere. Today, Portland’s prized asset is lifestyle and real estate. The city’s popularity as a destination city for foodies, and as a small city with culture and panache, has made Portland a hotspot for developers looking to leverage the value of the city’s real estate. The new development happening in Portland, like condos on Munjoy Hill, the expansion happening along India Street, a proposed high-rise in Bayside, all this is occurring because there is a hot market for real estate development that wasn’t there a few years ago.
According to Herb Adams, historian and former state legislator, asset extraction and Portland’s economy have had a longstanding symbiotic relationship.
“Abundant resources, readily removed,” explained Adams.
Adams says that in the past, it was “lumber harvested and brought to Portland to make mast for schooners—Casco Bay has always provided fish, lobster, and other natural assets for shipping elsewhere.”
“Portland during most of the twentieth century was a major northeastern manufacturing hub, with bountiful labor for making things and sending them away,” added Adams.
Back Bay Tower on Cumberland Avenue
IF WE BUILD IT…