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 builders and town policy makers, realizing their visions of vibrant downtowns and Main Streets means enacting new zoning standards, limits on lot sizes, and requirements based on form, rather than function, of proposed buildings. In 2011, Standish was the first community to adopt such a form-based policy, which emphasizes a proposed building's shape, size, proportions and relationship to the road and surrounding community, rather than focusing more on the predesignated use. Many of these new rules have been embraced in the Western United States, in places such as Colorado and California, where zoning is ingrained in the development DNA.

The challenge may be clearest in Falmouth, where the mile-long modern retail strip on Route 1 between Bucknam Road and Route 88 has been the focus of planners' efforts for more than a decade.

To kickstart the project, the town is planning an $11.7 million reconfiguration of the infrastructure and streetscape, to bury overhead power lines and incorporate landscaped medians, trees, crosswalks and sidewalks. If the spending measure passes a referendum in June, the project will be timed to take advantage of a previously scheduled repaving of that stretch of roadway by the Maine Department of Transportation.

Key to the plan are reconfigured zoning codes to be presented to the Town Council for a first reading Wednesday. The proposal would place requirements on future buildings to bring structures closer to the roadway, require them to be human-scale and limit the monotonous architectural styles that are hallmarks of big-box stores.

Town Councilor Bonny Rodden, who has been a vocal proponent of the plan and has helped shape its contents, said the zoning, while less visible than the streetscape improvements, will be a major step forward for the town in expanding the commerical tax base, lessening the burden for residential property owners.

While the high-traffic Route 1 strip is no historic district, Rodden said, in time, she envisions a community with apartments above businesses occupied by young professionals and older residents without children who want access to commerce without having to own a car. She foresees apartment dwellers who "jump on the bus and go to work in Portland," she said.

"We recognize that the Route 1 strip is never going to be Main Street in Yarmouth, as quaint as that is," she said. "What we're trying to do is incorporate all of these elements that are happening around the country, to make it work better for pedestrians and bicyclists."

Matt Byrne can be contacted at 791-6303 or at:

mbyrne@mainetoday.com

 

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