BIDDEFORD — Downtown’s that are unique and special can attract people and bring economic development to the area, say some city officials. To that end, City Council on Thursday discussed ways to preserve the historical aspect of the city and improve the appearance of the area.

Ideas that were floated ranged from restarting a new facade program for downtown property and business owners that would use both public and private investment to fund renovations and beautification of the building exteriors, to requiring building owners to improve the appearance of the property by a certain date.

“Historic preservation has been tied, it’s pretty solid, to economic development and investment,” Planning Director Greg Tansley told the council. “The downtown group talked about making Biddeford’s downtown a tourist destination. That’s what a historic downtown can do.”

He said that are some policies and ordinances already in place to help improve the appearance and retain the historic character of Biddeford’s downtown, where much of the architecture dates back to the 1800s. There is an anti-blight ordinance, public health and safety codes as well as an ordinance that requires downtown building owners to go before the Historic Preservation Commission when proposing changes to their property that require permits.

The commission must approve plans before changes are allowed. During that process, research that includes the historic appearance of the building as well as how it fits within the context of other buildings in the area are considered.

Councilor Marc Lessard who prompted the council discussion on the issue during a “Committee of the Whole” at its Thursday meeting said he was concerned about the appearance of the area of Main Street from Elm Street to Mechanics Park.

“There’s got to be a range of acceptability,” he said.

Funding for a facade program “would be great,” said Lessard. In the past, the city has sponsored facade programsand provides a portion of the funding to property owners to assist them in making improvements to enhance the appearance of their building. Private funds were also required to be invested in the projects.

Setting a long-range completion date when all buildings in the area must improve their appearance to a specific design standard was something also favored by Lessard.

“Without something being passed, we’re going to get to 2030 and the potential is that most of it won’t be addressed,” he said.

Some, like Councilor Michael Swanton were totally against the concept of design standards and mandating changes by property owners.

“I don’t want the government designing my building at all,” he said “If you’re open for business you should have your own unique look.”

Others said they favored improving the downtown but not mandating property owners to make changes.

While he favors preserving historic buildings, Councilor Norman Belanger said “I don’t want to force a private landowner to spend money” unless it’s necessary for public safety.

Councilor Michael Ready made similar comments against forcing people to make changes.

But he like others said they favored the city investing in a facade program to help those who wanted to make changes do so.

“Today, people are looking for something unique and individual and special,” said Mayor Alan Casavant. “If we can use the carrot to nurture individuals who own the building to move in that direction I think it’s really important.

“If we stay at that higher level of how do we magnify Biddeford’s uniqueness so that it’s attractive and people want to come here to spend their money I think that’s the big decision that we’re going to have to make and find the tools to get there,” he said.

City Manager Jim Bennett said the council’s input would be taken into consideration as staff develops ordinance and/or program proposals to preserve the historical integrity of the downtown and its appearance. He said city staff has also discussed design standards for U.S. Route 1 near the location of the new county court that is to be built there.

— Associate Editor Dina Mendros can be reached at 282-1535, ext. 324, or [email protected]

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