The time a bunch of establishment squares almost built a giant ziggurat right on the waterfront

My great friend Patrick Banks writes the That’s My Dump column for The Bollard and he is one of the funniest people I know. He is broadly interested in detailing the inter-relation between Portland history and its urban fabric, and he is developing a blog around these explorations. This is one of his first stabs at meditating upon the subject matter. Please forgive me for writing “at meditating the subject matter.” Ugh. What is happening to me?


What if the Cumberland County Civic Center and Boston City Hall had a baby and that baby grew up to mate with the offspring of Arcosanti and the towers over the approach to the George Washington Bridge? Probably something like “Residential Air Rights” project that the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce and the Urban Design Group out of Newport, RI wanted to build over the Portland end of the Casco Bay Bridge back when it was still the Million Dollar Bridge.

This proposal for a hive of stacked modular low-to-middle income housing (plus a smattering luxury units and elder housing), which the Chamber and their friends from the Urban Design Group were apparently totally serious about, was part of a larger* waterfront revitalization scheme they published in a report rather boringly titled “Harbor Redevelopment: Port of Portland, Maine” that came out in February 1969. (You can find a copy of the report in the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library.)

What a beautiful brutalist monstrosity it would have been. A series of terraced platforms would have been built over the roadways leading to the old Million Dollar Bridge. The housing itself would have been modular, ranging from one, two, and three story garden-style houses to townhouses and terraced units all the way up to medium rise apartments of up to six stories high. With the smaller structures near the water front and the tallest at the York Street ridge-line, the housing units would have been massed in such a way “as to create a pyramidal effect against the hill mass behind the site,” the reports authors wrote.

Neighborhood facilities would have included shops, recreation areas, schools, and parking – lots and lots of parking. 1.2 unit spaces per dwelling unit, in fact. (Did I mention there were to be 544 housing units in this human hive?) Pedestrian circulation would have been facilitated by a three dimensional maze of walkways, ramps, overpasses, elevators, and escalators. (One can speculate how long it would have taken before the elevators and escalators had been rendered inoperable.) The site design would have been congruent with existing residential development along Danforth Street. (It wasn’t clear if the authors meant the older housing stock or the more contemporary multi-unit buildings that were being erected in that neighborhood at the time. Judging by the sketches and mockups my guess would be the latter option.) The authors of the report were optimistic that there would have been enough economic activity elsewhere in the neighborhood to allow most of the residents of the complex to have a very short work commute – short enough to make it on foot in many cases. They rather optimistically estimated the cost of this project would have been around $13 million (around $82 million in todays dollars.) They proposed that first segment be developed starting in 1969 with 150 units ready by 1970. The whole project would have done by 1973 or so. In retrospect that was an ambitious timeline for a project of this scope.

I have to admit that I have a hard time believing that this proposal was made with a straight face – this was basically a proposal to build what amounted to an honest to god arcology on the Portland waterfront, after all. It all makes a little more sense when the project is considered in the wider historic context. Remember that by the late 1960s the Port of Portland – on both sides of the Fore River – was in a state of decay and leaders in government and the business community were starting to get alarmed. It wasn’t just the waterfront either – the whole of downtown Portland was hollowing out as residents and businesses fled to brand new cul-de-sacs and strip malls in Falmouth, Cumberland, Yarmouth, South Portland, and Scarborough. Municipal officials looking to keep at least some vitality in the urban core were receptive to creative and often destructive measures. This was right around the time entire neighborhoods were being cleared to make way for the Franklin Arterial and when the father of modern shopping mall, Victor Gruen himself drafted a proposal to basically turn downtown Portland into a giant open air shopping mall. With a zeitgeist like that, is it really so shocking that even a bunch of WASPy Chamber of Commerce types would have be open to saving the waterfront by building a giant alien ziggurat to house the masses?

No one knows for sure what would have become of this giant residential ziggurat, but our imaginations can run wild with speculation. Would it have decayed like the blight it was designed to replace, becoming something like the Hanging Gardens of Kennedy Park in the process? Or maybe the opposite – would the yuppies and hipsters who colonized the West End and Munjoy Hill have been able to resist such a ripe gentrification target. The views of the harbor would have been killer, that’s for sure.)

*One the other projects mentioned in the report was a new limited access road along the waterfront parallel to Commercial Street. Portland missed out on having its own Embarcadero Freeway or Alaskan Way Viaduct.


Alex Steed

About Alex Steed

Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was an insufferable teenager. He has run for the Statehouse and produced a successful web series. He now runs a content firm called Knack Factory with two guys who are a lot more talented than himself.