SOUTH PORTLAND — For more than 50 years, the Mill Creek commercial area has been dominated by a sea of pavement and low-slung, flat-roofed buildings that represented the cutting edge of real estate development in the 1950s and 1960s.

Now a city committee is proposing a new vision for Mill Creek as a more attractive, walkable, livable mixed-use urban village, and it’s already getting mixed reviews.

The Mill Creek Master Plan aims to build on growing interest in the city’s modest downtown, including the apparent renaissance of the waterfront Knightville neighborhood next door. Properties that could be wholly transformed under new zoning include the sprawling Shaw’s Millcreek Plaza and the Yankee Ford dealership, both on Waterman Drive.

The plan comes 18 years after the Casco Bay Bridge diverted traffic from Portland directly onto Broadway, past Ocean Street and Waterman Drive, a move that some worried would turn the downtown area into a ghost town.

The plan reimagines Mill Creek as an extension of Portland’s Old Port, just across the harbor. It would have more streets and taller buildings. More businesses and homes. More workers and residents. More sidewalks and green space.

“It’s an effort to establish an expanded, planned downtown for our city,” said Craig Piper, an architect who is chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee.

Piper said the committee took the opportunity to brainstorm how Mill Creek might prosper for the next 50 years and possibly grow beyond its current status as a retail and service center for residents of South Portland, Cape Elizabeth and downtown Portland.

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Piper said. “(The proposed master plan) creates a road map for people to follow in the future. It says, ‘If you consider redeveloping your property, here are some options that would be wonderful.’ ”

GUIDE FOR LANDOWNERS, INVESTORS

The 108-page Mill Creek proposal is one of several focused planning documents that have been produced since the City Council approved a comprehensive development plan in 2012. A working draft of the Mill Creek proposal is posted on the city’s website, www.southportland.org, on the Comprehensive Plan Committee page.

Planning Director Tex Haeuser is seeking feedback from other city department heads before publicly presenting the Mill Creek proposal Feb. 26 – to property and business owners at 4 p.m. and to the general public at 6 p.m. Both meetings will be in the council chamber at City Hall.

The Mill Creek district stretches from Broadway to E Street, and from Waterman Drive to Cottage Road, where a Hannaford supermarket dominates a prime waterfront parcel. Other significant properties in the district include Bull Moose Music, VIP Tires & Service and Yankee Ford on Waterman Drive; financial institutions on Market Street, across from Mill Creek Park; and the Mill Creek Shopping Center, also on Market Street, across from the Shaw’s plaza.

Haeuser said Mill Creek’s current zoning reflects a post-World War II vision of an auto-oriented, suburban commercial center that has little regard for the environmental impacts of development or the well-being of citizens.

“The current zoning provides little guidance to city officials … and poor or improper regulatory direction to Mill Creek property owners and investors,” Haeuser wrote in a recent memo to City Manager Jim Gailey.

The Mill Creek proposal encompasses several concepts that the committee considered critical to the future development of the neighborhood, Haeuser said.

TALLER BUILDINGS, DIVERSE USES

Buildings would be taller – from at least two floors to as many as seven floors with two floors of covered parking – and have a maximum height dependent on their location in the district. Buildings also would be closer to the street, with surface parking to the rear, and would have to meet green design standards, including stormwater management to keep street pollution out of Casco Bay.

New zoning regulations would allow a wide variety of office, retail, studio and housing development – from restaurants to day care centers to senior housing – all of which would have to be designed to limit impacts on residential neighbors in Knightville. The city would support improvements with tax increment financing, including the possible construction of a $3 million pedestrian bridge along Broadway that would carry walkers and cyclists across Waterman Drive and the travel lanes of the Casco Bay Bridge.

Haeuser said the evolution of Mill Creek calls for cooperation between the city and the private sector and depends on the willingness of property owners and developers.

“This isn’t what Mill Creek will become,” Haeuser said, referring to the proposed master plan. “It’s what Mill Creek could become if property owners so choose.”

AREA HAS TWO LARGE RETAIL SECTIONS

Finard Properties of Boston, owner of the Shaw’s plaza, and Shaw’s supermarket executives didn’t respond to requests for comment on the Mill Creek Master Plan.

Built in 1969, the plaza has experienced frequent tenant turnover and vacancies through the years and currently has a lot of unused parking area. The master plan shows the potential to develop several through streets and several multistory, multiuse buildings on the 8-acre property.

Commercial Properties Inc. of Portland, which manages the Mill Creek Shopping Center, also didn’t respond to a reporter’s inquiry.

Built in 1955 and expanded in 1961, the shopping center is considered the oldest commercial strip of its kind in Maine. The plan doesn’t offer development options for the shopping center because it has steady tenancy and appropriate parking, Haeuser said, but its owners could redevelop the property with expanded uses.

EARLY MIX OF SKEPTICISM, OPTIMISM

For the Yankee Ford site at 165 Waterman Drive, the plan imagines multistory buildings with ground-level retail space topped by as many as 92 apartments. The apartments would be oriented away from the bridge and the nearby sewage treatment plant.

Joe Manning, an owner of the dealership, said he’s intrigued by the overall proposal for the future of Mill Creek, but he questions whether there’s demand for the kind of redevelopment that’s been dreamed up.

“I don’t see how it’s viable or realistic given the economic situation here,” Manning said, noting vacancies in the Shaw’s plaza and elsewhere in the district.

Others see growing interest in the downtown area and hear talk of developers poised to build more housing and commercial space in Mill Creek and in Knightville, where an earlier master plan has spurred recent business and residential development.

“I had no idea what was happening in Knightville until we opened The Farm Stand last year,” said Joe Fournier, co-owner of the locally sourced food market at 161 Ocean St., within the Mill Creek Neighborhood Core.

“Something is going to happen with this area, whether it’s planned or not,” said Fournier, who lives in Cape Elizabeth. “It’s already happening. Might as well have a plan.”

VILLAGE-STYLE ATMOSPHERE WELCOME

Next door to The Farm Stand is Heirloom Consignment, a “recirculated” home furnishings store that Michelle Raymond opened last year.

When a city official told Raymond about the pending plan for Mill Creek, she thought, “That’s where I want to be – right in the middle of things,” she recalled. “I’m looking forward to the day that people are living and working and walking throughout this area.”

Raymond, who lives in Cape Elizabeth, would like to be able to move to the Mill Creek or Knightville neighborhood in the future.

“It’s very attractive to me to be able to live and work in the same area,” Raymond said. “I love the sense of community that’s developing here.”

Tania Margate, who lives in Portland’s West End and works at Maine Paint at 153 Ocean St., raised common concerns about parking, traffic and public safety. She often bikes throughout South Portland’s waterfront neighborhoods.

“If it’s more of a village atmosphere, it might be more safe for me to ride my bike,” Margate said. “It also might boost sales if more people were coming here, walking around, spending their time and money.”