WESTBROOK — Urban renewal has become a dirty word for many in Westbrook over the past 40 years, with many older residents lamenting that the federally funded program razed historic buildings and changed the look of the city they remember when they were young.

But Henry Saunders, the former vice chairman of the Westbrook Urban Renewal Authority and the group’s last surviving member at age 90, sees the work that was done in a different light.

Saunders told the Rotary Club of Westbrook-Gorham Tuesday that he was “very pleased and satisfied” with the work done and, overall, he wouldn’t do much different it he could do it over again.

The Westbrook Urban Renewal Authority began planning in 1964, Saunders said, with much of the work taking place in the 1970s. The effort, which included demolishing many older buildings, continued until 1981 when the Scates Building was demolished and CVS went up in its place.

City Administrator Jerre Bryant said in an interview that urban renewal was the “accepted approach” in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s to revitalize downtowns across the country.

“It basically said we need to modernize our city centers to make them more vibrant, meaningful and relevant,” he said.

Advertisement

The approach, funded predominately by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Renewal Assistance Administration, was made to counter the hit downtowns across the country were starting to feel as shopping malls such as, in Westbrook’s case, the nearby Pine Tree Shopping Center and the old Bradlees shopping center (now Westbrook Crossing), started luring shoppers away from downtowns. That, combined with the Federal Highway Act of 1956 that expanded highways across the country in the 1950s and 1960s, made downtown a much less popular place for commerce.

According to Westbrook’s urban renewal plan of 1971, the effort was aimed at revitalizing the downtown as a “community focal point,” removing “the blighting influence of many deficient or substandard structures, as well as improving housing for low income residents, updating the sewer system and “proving free movement into, through and out of Westbrook,” providing “landscaped open spaces and malls” and establishing off-street parking in lieu of on street parking.

“I think we did a lot of things that were really good to do,” Saunders said.

Urban renewal rebuilt Main Street, modernized the sewer system and buried utilities lines underground, he said. The  effort also paved the way for the construction of Wayside Drive (now William Clarke Drive) to help traffic flow through Westbrook.

Downtown “was pretty rundown in the 1940s and 1950s,” Saunders said.

“It desperately needed some aggressive rebuilding to bring it back to something we could be proud of,” Saunders said. “As I drive around the urban renewal area and look at what we did, I think it looks pretty doggone good.”

Advertisement

In Westbrook, a number of older buildings were razed and in their place went more modern buildings or parking lots. It was during the urban renewal period that a number of streets (Bond, Brackett Carpenter, Central and Fitch) connecting to Main Street were discontinued to make way for the public parking lot and Blue Note Park (Westbrook Common).

Saunders said there was a request during urban renewal to bring a large grocery store to downtown, something that downtown couldn’t accommodate because of space concerns. The Urban Renewal Authority, he said, fought a plan to build a fire station in Saccarappa Park.

“I think that park is very desirable and the city should work to keep it a park,” he said.

Saunders said the authority tried to save as many of the salvageable buildings as it could. Mike Sanphy, Westbrook’s mayor and president of its historical society, remembers many of the buildings taken down. Many of them, he said in an interview, were vacant and in need of repair.

Among the buildings razed were the old Westbrook Congregational Church, the first church established in the city; the Brackett/LaFond Block, the site of LaFond and Co. Department Store on the corner of Main and Brackett streets; the Scates Building, home of a number of businesses over the years, including drug stores, the Westbrook Post Office, Central Maine Power, city offices and the Masonic Lodge; the Star Theatre movie house (1912 to 1960s) on the current site of Martini Lane; and the Odd Fellows Building, where Hub Furniture is now.

Sanphy said he would have liked to have seen some of the buildings spared, including the LaFond Block and Scates Building.

Advertisement

“These were buildings that were part of our history,” he said.

Saunders said, the Scates Building, built in 1903, was in rough shape and the authority “had every reason to take it down.”

While the approach was not necessarily wrong, how Westbrook implemented it may have been, Bryant said.

“It was not surgically implemented. It was across-the-board implemented,” he said.

Sanphy said people at that time had a different take on historic preservation.

“The mindset was different back then. We see the value of old buildings and preserving them now, but at that time we really didn’t,” Sanphy said. “I don’t want to throw urban renewal under the bus. They had a job to do and did the best they could.”

Advertisement

Saunders acknowledges that some people aren’t happy with the way urban renewal was handled, but the alternative would have been an even older and more rundown downtown.

“We stuck to our thinking,” he said. “You have to ask the question, what Westbrook would have looked like without urban renewal.”

A video of Saunders’ talk can be seen at https://vimeo.com/287296383.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or [email protected] or on Twitter @mkelleynews

This photo was taken in the early 1970s looking east from Central Street, which once was connected to Main Street. Looking right to left, the one-story building had been recently vacated by Western Auto and the A &P Store. LaVerdiere’s Super Drug would later move in. The next two buildings were occupied by the Men’s Shop, and next was the Scates building also known as the Masonic Building. In the distance is the steeple of the Westbrook Congregational Church. Family Dollar Store now occupies the one-story building; the rest of the buildings are gone. CVS occupies the site of the Men’s Shop and Scates buildings.

This building, at 837 Main Street, was once home to Westbrook Hardware on the first floor and the Riverside Apartments on the second floor. Today the site is a parking lot between T.D. Banknorth and Bank of America. (Courtesy photo)

Advertisement

The Scates Building was the last to be razed under the Westbrook Urban Renewal Project. There was strong public support to save the building, which once served as Westbrook City Hall, Municipal Court and the urban renewal offices. The location remained a vacant lot for many years and a large pine tree was located there to serve as the Municipal Christmas Tree for several years. CVS eventually purchased the land for a pharmacy and parking lot.

Taken in the 1960s, this picture shows Main Street at Carpenter Street. The building on the left was occupied by Hood’s Drug Store on the first floor and George’s Barber Shop on the second. The third floor was an apartment. Next door was Day’s Jewelry Store on the first floor and Marshall Studio on the upper floors. Carpenter Street ran between this building and the building to the right of it, the Scates Building, occupied on the first floor by Westbrook Power Co. and LaChance Drug Store. Westbrook City Hall and the Municipal Court were on the second floor and Temple Lodge 86 A.F. & A.M. (Masons) occupied the third floor.These buildings were demolished by urban renewal and Carpenter Street no longer exists. A one-story commercial building, parking lot and CVS Pharmacy now occupy the site.

This photo taken in the 1960s shows, left to right, an office building; the Westbrook Congregational Church, which was built in 1834; Brackett Street; the vacant Brackett Block built in 1850 by Zachariah Brackett (this building was part of the Underground Railroad during the Civil War); Phil’s Pizza and Day’s Jewelry Store. Brackett Street ran between the Church and the Brackett blocks, both of which were demolished by urban renewal, and Brackett Street between Main Street and Wayside Drive (currently William Clarke Drive) was closed off.

The 1971 Urban Renewal Authority plan had Westbrook looking a little different than it does today. Henry Saunders, vice chairman of the group, spoke Tuesday about his memories during the time when many of the city’s older buildings were torn down to make way for newer buildings and several roadways were terminated in order to create a municipal parking lot.

Henry Saunders, vice chairman of the Westbrook Urban Renewal Authority, shared some of his memories Tuesday of the 1960-80s urban renewal effort in Westbrook that aimed to make downtown more modern and vibrant.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.