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.

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.

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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