March 25, 2013

Planners in Maine envision vibrant downtowns

By Matt Byrne mbyrne@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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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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For several hours that day, residents who volunteered to take part discussed their visions for the rural neighborhood that is surrounded by trees, walking trails, undeveloped fields and, to the west, the Saco River. The meeting was led by staff from Sustain Southern Maine, a conglomeration of nonprofits working to plan growth in the area.

On the fringe of the Portland metropolitan area, Standish is expected to grow by 1,350 housing units and 350 jobs within the next 25 to 35 years, according to Dr. Charles Colgan, a professor at the University of Southern Maine and a former state economist. It is the most rural of nine communities that Sustain Southern Maine has selected for a pilot program.

Brainstorming sessions like this one will help develop a common planning process for future use by other municipalities.

In each of the nine communities, which span from the more urban India Street neighborhood of Portland to bucolic Standish, planners are listening to residents, hashing out a vision for a desirable future. The process is funded by a $1.6 million federal grant that charges the group to incorporate transportation, the environment and low-cost housing into their process.

"The question to (these communities) is what do you want to be?" said Carol Morris, lead consultant for Sustain Southern Maine, in an earlier interview. After the meeting, Morris said she was impressed with the definitive elements of the community considered to be worth preserving.

"Here we are in this little rural enclave, and people want to see some sort of design standards," Morris said. "That's really unusual."

Rather than grand schemes, the answers often come in tiny steps that add up to meaningful change. To Steep Falls residents, that meant tasteful and unified business facades; more shops and stores to support daily life, such as a barber shop, and places to buy groceries, books or gasoline; sidewalks for pedestrians and curbing with planter beds, street lights and bicyclist-friendly road shoulders.

Such amenities can help craft a sense of "place," an invaluable form of currency in community-building, Morris and others say.

One Steep Falls resident, David Robinson, 59, said he wants to be proud of how the village grows, even if it means he won't be around to see it happen.

"I want to make it a place where my kids would want to live," Robinson said.

TRENDING TOWARD WALKABILITY

Part of the recent desire to live closer to businesses and amenities emerged after the collapse of home prices seven to eight years ago, slowing an era of "drive-until-you-qualify" home buyers, who pushed farther away from their workplaces to find homes they could afford.

In Maine, permits for new single-family houses peaked in June 2004 at 950, according to federal data. In 2012, the number of permits for new homes reached just 265.

And, now that gas prices have made driving more expensive, the break-even point for suburban home buyers in Greater Portland is 4.7 miles closer to the city, according to Richert. In previous years, families could afford to commute to Portland while living as far away as Raymond; now the frontier of affordable commuting has moved closer to the Standish area.

Playing into this trend are the proclivities of the next generation of home buyers, known as Generation Y, people ages 18 to 35 who make up about 301,000 Mainers.

In a 2011 study by the Urban Land Institute, among 1,400 Gen-Y Americans surveyed across the nation, 64 percent said walkability was either essential or preferable in their choice for housing. Workplace locations also skewed toward the urban: Forty-seven percent of respondents said in 2010 they worked in or near a downtown or in a city neighborhood. Asked where they see themselves working in 2015, more than half -- 54 percent -- preferred a city or semi-urban setting.

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