Why More Land?

Update: Please read my follow-up post HERE

 

If you’ve travelled through the intersection of Highland Ave. and Cottage Road (where Red’s Dairy Freeze is) in the last couple of weeks, you may have noticed signs posted around the property at 159 Cottage Road.  This property, a former Getty gas station, sits adjacent to one corner of the library’s property.  The signs announce that the property will be auctioned off on August 8.  I think it would be a great benefit to the community – and the library – if the city were able to acquire that parcel of land. Below, I will attempt to answer the question, “why more land?”

The former Getty station, at 159 Cottage Road
The former Getty station, at 159 Cottage Road

Those who frequently travel through the Cottage Road/Highland Avenue intersection are used to the little gas station building on the corner.  It has been there for at least the past 25 years but it has not been functioning as a gas station for quite some time.  In the last 10 years or so – the time I have been with the city – the property has been alternately vacant or home to various automotive or industrial tenants.

Basically, it doesn’t seem to work, for any extended period of time, as successful customer driven business location.  I suspect that the access difficulties, presented by an incredibly busy intersection, hamper its usefulness.

When I noticed the posting of the upcoming auction of the property, I began thinking of how that small parcel (less than ¼ acre) of land might work in conjunction with the library’s land.  The past and current use of the land has never presented any problems for the library, so we haven’t been actively yearning to acquire the property.  In thinking of it becoming available, however, it seemed that that the parcel does have significant real value for the library and, I believe, for the community in general.

The benefit to the library is huge, and it comes in the form of visibility.  As the land is portioned currently, the library is not visible on the south and east sides (the southern side is the parking lot side of the building, and the eastern side faces Holy Cross church).  The large floor to ceiling windows – arguably the building’s most noticeable feature – can only be seen when driving past, or entering, the library’s parking lot.  As seen in the aerial photograph from the city’s planning department, if you were in a vehicle, stopped at the intersection in front of Red’s, you would be able to see just over half of the eastern wall of the building.

Aerial view of 159 Cottage, showing library in the upper left of the image.
Aerial view of 159 Cottage, showing library in the upper left of the image. The space between the top and middle red lines represent current sight lines, around 159 Cottage.  The entire space between the top and bottom red lines represents the sight lines if the property were incorporated into the existing library lawn.

If you were able to see past this corner property, the range of visibility opens up to encompass the entire southern and eastern walls of the building.  While it is true that most of the obstructed view is in the form of trees, many of which are on the library’s existing property, these trees have been maintained as a screen between the library’s property and the neighboring properties.  After all, who wants the view from the library to be of the back of an old gas station?  Even with the trees cleared, however, the view would be one that is had over and through a parking lot and – up until recently – a fence.  How much nicer would it be to have an unobstructed view of the library from the intersection?

Approximate view of the library from intersection, with 159 Cottage Rd. incorporated into the city's property and relandscaped.
Approximate view of the library from intersection, with 159 Cottage Rd. incorporated into the city’s property and relandscaped.

I can imagine – if the property were to be acquired and blended into the library’s existing lawn – a well-landscaped area at the intersection, beyond which you would be able to see the main library building.  Given the improvements made – and still underway – at the library, the building would make quite a striking impression from that angle.  As we discovered on the Broadway side of the building, once we removed the old window shades, which obscured the windows from the inside, and the overgrown plantings, which obscured them from the outside, the building makes a very noticeable impression, once its form is allowed to function as designed.

Poor quality cel phone image of the Broadway side of the building, in the evening, following the removal of landscaping overgrowth.
Broadway side of the building, in the evening, following the removal of landscaping overgrowth.

By my estimation, with new landscaping of the property, the library would be visible quite a distance up the hill – well before traffic travelling north reaches the intersection with Highland – allowing for plenty of time to turn onto Highland and go to the library.  Compare this to now, when traffic travelling north does not get a glimpse of the building until they are already through the intersection and alongside our eastern wall.  If they decide, at that point, to visit the library, they must travel all the way around the block in order to reach the entrance to the library’s parking lot.

The concept of visibility for a service destination is not always an easy one to grasp.  Retail businesses pay very close attention to positioning and visibility, as those factors are key to attracting customer traffic.  HoweverI think that the concept has traditionally been given little thought when it comes to municipal services.  This is partially due to a traditional way of thinking, which says, “if they want the service, they will find it.”  In other words, if someone wants a library, they will do the legwork to find out where it is… we don’t have to put any effort into making it easy for them.

I find this way of thinking about services as frustrating and shortsighted.  As we’ve seen with the improvements already made to the building, such thinking has limited our potential in the past.  Since the clearing of the vegetation which had been allowed to, essentially, bury the building, and since we have made it a priority to improve sightlines into and out of the building, we are attracting many more users.  Hardly a week goes by where we don’t hear a comment from a library visitor about how they have driven past the building for years and had never really noticed it was there.  We are a customer-driven business, and, like any other business, need to be seen in order to succeed.

Since we’ve seen what opening up the exposure of the building on the northern and western sides does for us and our users, I’d love for us to be able to do the same for the southern and eastern sides.  We have an enviable location in the city, it would be ideal if we were able to make the most of it by allowing as many people to see us as possible.  What would it say to visitors to our community to have the library – a community resource – highlighted at this busy intersection, rather than an old gas station?

Apart from the direct benefit to the library, I think there’s tremendous value in the added “green space” potential of the corner property.  With this parcel added to the library’s property, the community would then have an expanse of open space running the full length of the stretch between Broadway and Highland.  The “green space” concept is usually discussed in terms of trails and wetlands – more remote land locations.  In this situation, I think the concept of urban green space is important to consider.  How much would this tiny parcel of land help in beautifying a busy intersection if it were nicely a nicely landscaped lawn, rather than a cinderblock building, pavement and a chain link fence?

What could be done, creatively, with the space to make the intersection more pedestrian friendly, to improve access to the library, to soften the flow of traffic?  With the schools, Red’s, the library and Holy Cross, not to mention the densely packed residential neighborhoods all around us, we are in a very pedestrian heavy area, as well as one which is built up with few – if any – opportunities for providing open space.  We feel that negative space can be a very positive thing.

As it has the potential for directly impacting the library in a hugely positive way, I am happy that we brought the idea forward for discussion.  Ultimately, though, whether or not to acquire this land is a decision for the city to make.  Given the apparent limited business use potential for the land, we would love for there to be a rethinking of how the land could benefit the city, as opposed to being derelict or under-used.

 

As always, I welcome your feedback and can be reached at:

Director@SouthPortlandLibrary.com

You can also keep up with the library on Twitter: @SoPoLibrary and on Facebook

Thanks,

Kevin

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