March 25, 2013

Planners in Maine envision vibrant downtowns

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

To hear Harland Eastman tell it, the amenities in cozy Springvale would make many modern home buyers salivate.

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Installing sidewalks for pedestrians, such as along this stretch of Main Street, are among the changes that Steep Falls residents identified as desirable at a planning session.

Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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Within walking distance in a community of just a few thousand were 10 grocery stores, five doctors, four dry goods stores, three clothing shops, three pharmacies, two bakeries, a pair of hotels, two jewelry stores, a furniture outlet and a theater.

But Eastman is neither a developer selling dreams by the acre, nor a city planner with an eye on tomorrow. He is an expert on the history of Springvale, part of the town of Sanford, describing the mill town at its height in the early 20th century. If regional planners get their way, Eastman's historic rendition could be a template for growth in the coming generation.

"The downtown was terribly important in a time when transportation was limited," said Eastman, 83, long retired from the diplomatic service. "There were no big-box stores you could drive to. It's (the) ease of transportation and the development of commercial enterprises that have changed the face of America."

From Fort Kent to Wells, town officials and planning groups are attempting to reinvigorate, preserve, and in some cases create downtown centers like the one Eastman describes. After 60 years of witnessing the spread of ubiquitous large-lot home developments, commercial strips and stores flanked by acres of parking lots, and the traffic-choked byways that connect them, towns are now looking inward for ways to distinguish their identities.

"That's called 'Anywhere USA,' " said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine, a nonprofit that helps local towns reshape future development. While the modern strips serve a market demand, she said, "you've lost what makes a community unique."

Communities see livable, walkable villages and downtowns as a way to attract younger urban-oriented residents, improve efficiency and support local commerce. The challenge in many places will be balancing decades of single-purpose design that depends on automotive transportation with the growing desire of Americans to get out of their cars and walk city streets.

In Falmouth, planners have no historical downtown to preserve, but are trying anyway to turn a mile-long stretch of busy, commercialized Route 1 into a village center with sidewalks, pedestrian features, and a sense of place. Other communities such as Standish are trying to revitalize historic villages by encouraging and guiding new development. In Biddeford, Saco and Sanford, years of planning have led to redeveloped mill buildings that are bringing new tax dollars and a sense of possibility.

Success for these projects can be a moving target, however. In the best cases, efforts to mold communities can take decades to realize, requiring a mix of community buy-in and costly private investment, said Evan Richert, town planner in Orono, who keeps tabs on trends in development throughout Maine.

The flight from urban settings to low-density suburbia has been ongoing for a half-century, Richert said, heavily skewing the state's neighborhoods toward homes on large building lots, often multiple acres. Even if centrally oriented developments take root in the next 25 years, they still would represent only a tiny fraction of overall development and would do little to change the character of communities built on the old model.

"I think the jury is out," Richert said. "It really takes another 25 years beyond that, and 25 years beyond that. These communities have to have that outlook, and have to start somewhere."

DISCUSSING THEIR VISIONS

On a recent Wednesday afternoon inside a Standish municipal meeting room, a village's future was in the making. More than two dozen pairs of eyes were trained on a map of Steep Falls, the intersection of routes 11 and 113, one of three population centers in the town of 9,874 that hugs Sebago Lake.

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