Presumably, most people who enjoy the to-be-built Bayside Promenade will experience it differently than I did last Saturday. Rather than picking their way around trash, alongside looming scrap heaps and hazardous razor wire, they'll make their way down a manicured walking/biking path that connects the Eastern Promenade with Deering Oaks Park. (And I'd wager that many more people will utilize the trail during the warmer months, without cold November winds whipping against their faces, but that's a different story.)
But seeing the proposed promenade the way I did, when Portland Trails, a non-profit organization working to create an urban trails network in and around the city, took about 30 people on a walking tour of the route, was a rare chance to see the project in all its "before" shambles; once the trail moves into its "after" phase, the contrast will be that much more striking.
Public officials, interested neighbors, and a few journalists who gathered in the parking lot at the corner of Elm and Somerset streets on Saturday afternoon were led eastward along the unused railroad tracks that the $5 million rails-to-trails path will follow. Portland Trails representatives provided running narrative and explanations. We learned that the large scrap yard near Whole Foods will move to Riverside Street next year, and that once it does, the city will use grant money (hopefully) to clean up those brownfields. We were assured that railroad relics, such as the switches that line the tracks, will somehow be incorporated into the trail design. We squeezed into a more narrow formation as the path tapered after Franklin Arterial, and spread out again once we hit the grassy section that goes under Tukey's Bridge near Munjoy Hill. We were told that the preliminary "ribbon of trails" — the skeleton of the project — will be completed by the end of 2009, with the possible exception of the section near the new United Way/Maine Health building (which has yet to break ground).
Those in charge have their work cut out for them. I don't know what the Eastern Prom looked like before it became the Eastern Prom, but as it exists right now, the Bayside trail is scary. It snakes between buildings and along empty parking lots — not necessarily somewhere I'd want to run, walk, or bike alone. In addition to proper lighting and signs, the designers should consider opening up the path as much as possible, so that it's visible from nearby streets.
That said, it's exciting to think of this area of the city seeing more foot traffic. As I walked along behind the businesses on Marginal Way, I realized that this prime Portland real estate is so obscured by a maze of concrete and cars that it is rarely appreciated. Developers hope the trail will lure more eating establishments to locate nearby, and that local fitness centers will be able to capitalize on this outdoor infrastructure. I'm merely looking forward to longer walks.
It's not just in Portland that green spaces are expanding. Just last week, the Cape Elizabeth town planning board approved plans to establish an arboretum in the 90-acre Fort Williams Park, by eliminating invasive species and replacing them with native trees and plants. They're starting small; the first step of the project will be transforming half an acre.
I know, I know: it's hard to think about walking and greenery at the same time as we brace ourselves for snow. But just as many of us spent recent weeks putting our gardens to bed (cutting back perennials, covering the lawn with compost, gathering up fallen leaves), we can put our walking shoes to bed with the knowledge that eventually, our springtime strolls will take us down new paths.
Deirdre Fulton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.