The recent restoration of street signs along Franklin Arterial to its original name, Franklin Street, may not seem like a big change.

But Franklin, the four-lane road in Portland leading from Interstate 295 to the waterfront, has quite a story behind it. And the name change is just a part of the wider effort to revitalize the wide swath of road and median that cuts the peninsula in two.

According to City of Portland spokesperson Nicole Clegg, the street may never have been officially labeled Franklin Arterial. “We can’t find records indicating an official name change,” said Clegg. Regardless, its designation as an arterial was reflected in street signs and the popular vernacular.

For most of the city’s history, Franklin Street was just an ordinary street, one of Portland’s earliest according to Scott Hanson, an architectural historian who worked in the city’s historic preservation program until March 2010. It was lined with businesses and family homes.

Portland thrived as a port in the 18th and 19th centuries. But following the Great Depression and World War Two, the city was in decline. The neighborhoods along Franklin were filled Italian, Lithuanian and Jewish immigrant families. The buildings had mostly been built as single-family homes, but many were later converted into tenements.

It wasn’t until the urban renewal movement of the 1950s and ’60s that Portland officials decided Franklin Street needed a makeover, tearing down hundreds of buildings and turning it into the wide thoroughfare it is today.

“Throughout the 1940s and ’50s, the press and City Hall were focused on the issues of what to do with the ‘slums’ as they were commonly described, and how to make traffic flow into the city more effectively,” said Hanson.

The first slum clearance project in Portland took place in 1956 and 1957 in the area between Middle and Fore streets, near what is now the Custom House parking garage. According to Hanson, only one historic structure — the Hub Furniture building — remains in that area.

“That was sort of the first domino,” said Hanson. “By the late 1960s the city had cleared a great deal of space in Bayside and what is now Munjoy South.”

The city brought in an Austrian born architect Victor Gruen — better known as the pioneer of the modern shopping mall — to develop a plan to get traffic from the newly built Interstate 295 to downtown. Gruen’s plan called for an arterial road connecting the interstate to downtown, and after several other routes were considered, the city settled on Franklin Street.

By 1969 demolition of buildings along Franklin had begun, leading to the construction of the highway-like road Portland residents are familiar with today. Only three buildings survived the clearance.

According to Hanson, the clearances, including those for the construction of the arterial had profound effects on the city. “It cut Munjoy Hill off from the rest of the city, leaving it to become more isolated,” he said. “With the loss of hundreds of owner-occupied homes, those families mostly left the city and moved to the suburbs, which drastically changed the demographics of Portland. It just sucked the life out of the city.”

The effects on the city weren’t exclusively negative, however. Substantial office buildings like One and Two Monument Square were built around the same time, as was the Key Bank Plaza on Congress Street. “The people who were responsible for [the construction of the arterial] will claim to this day that they saved the city by making it possible to drive in,” Hanson said.

Whether Franklin Arterial was a necessity or a mistake, city officials have now decided the corridor could be put to better use.

The effort to rethink the arterial began in 2008 with the creation by the Portland Planning Department of the Franklin Street Arterial Committee. The committee, made up of representatives from various neighborhood associations, city departments and areas businesses, was tasked with restoring Franklin into an integrated area of the city, rather than what committee co-chair Markos Miller called a “no-man’s land.”

“As Franklin is now, there are no amenities for bicyclists, no amenities for pedestrians moving along or across,” Miller said. “It’s a huge barrier.”

The committee released their report in 2009, suggesting alternatives to the current arterial corridor that would retain the ability for high traffic flow, but add pedestrian and bicycle routes and redevelop buildings along the road.

“There’s just tons of space there, about 15 or 16 acres, and the actual roadway only takes up about seven acres,” said Miller. “50 percent is unused or underused, whether in the median or dead space to the side.” Miller said the goal of the committee  is to put that land to better use.

“With proper development, Franklin could really look and feel like the gateway to the peninsula that it was meant to be,” he said.

The redesigning of Franklin is still in the early planning stages, and according to Miller, it could be a while before any real changes begin. He said the Maine Department of Transportation has to carry out a feasibility study on redevelopment before any designs are drawn up.

“It’s pretty widely recognized that no design work should be done before we have sort of a master plan,” he said.

 

 

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