Larger buildings are beginning to pop up on Main Street and downtown in accordance with density changes made last year. At the right, at 630 Main St, is the first building completed under the new allowances. Chance Viles / American Journal

Year-old ordinance changes allowing developers to build higher and with more residential density in downtown Westbrook are already making a positive impact, developers and the city planner say, with one new Main Street building completely leased out and a few others on the way.

In an effort to bring more business downtown, the city agreed in January 2020 that new buildings with a commercial tenant on the first floor could house one residential unit per 500 square feet rather than one per 1,500 square feet. That allows more residences per lot and as a result, developers can build three or more stories. After a fourth floor, the square footage per unit becomes negotiable and buildings with four or more stories require an elevator.

Across from Riverbank Park, the three-story building at 660 Main St. is the first to be completed under the new allowances. It has six apartments on the second and third floors and two businesses, florist Petalage and Mills Barbershop, on the first.  

Developer Chris Wilson had received approval for a two-story building with four residential units under the old rules, but then came back to amend his project after the rules changed.

That’s what City Planner Jennie Franceschi, who drafted the changes, had hoped would happen.

“We are so pleased with the first round of developers taking on this task, and showing what Main Street can look like. We are so excited that Chris Wilson came back to us after he already had approval and got another floor,” Franceschi said.

Wilson said he’s long wanted more density allowed in the city and the change made his investment more financially viable. He has a second 10-apartment project underway in Cumberland Mills.

“We are working on another building where Paul’s Shoe Repair was,” he said.

The elevator shaft and base at Ryan Le’s 630 Main St. project. The building will have commercial space on the first floor and 12 residential apartments above it. Chance Viles / American Journal

Just down the street from 660 Main St., the elevator shaft for developer Ryan Le’s new four-story building at 630 Main St. is in place. First-floor commercial space will be topped by 12 apartments.

“Long term there are more units, so it makes a better long-term investment,” Le said. “Main Street doesn’t have a lot of big lots, so it helps to increase the density to put in more units and stack higher.”

The ordinances also ensure Main Street frontage for more businesses.  Franceschi said that the city didn’t have data on how the storefronts could impact the city’s economy, but the effects are tangible for Mills Barbershop owner Adam Currier.

The barbershop relocated to the new space from the Westbrook Market off Stroudwater Street. On Main Street, they have more foot traffic and they’ve added a barber to meet the growing demand, Currier said.

“That exposure is vital, especially for a barbershop. It’s really made a huge difference,” he said.

Customer Sean Barry, in the shop on Tuesday, said the new spot is “night and day” over the old location and he’s noticed the uptick in business since the move. He used to be able to book an appointment the day before, but now he has to call a week in advance, he said.

Mill’s Barbershop co-owner Adam Currier, left, cuts customer Sean Barry’s hair. Currier has said the new Main Street location has already boosted business. Chance Viles / American Journal

Both Le and Wilson said they’d prefer to have some residential units on the first floor because leasing smaller business spaces can be tough, but Franceschi said housing incubator businesses are part of the equation. As businesses grow and move out, it creates space for other small businesses, she said.

Michelle Glassman, the owner of Petalage, agrees. She said the small space is perfect for her to test the retail component of her business, and the rent is much more affordable than in Portland.

“It being smaller helped with the rent and overhead costs, especially with how volatile things have been in the pandemic,” Glassman said.

Residents who spoke with the American Journal downtown on Tuesday, including David Macisso, said the change in building heights and downtown’s appearance had little impact on them.

“I’ve lived here since the ’60s.  I don’t mind it and it doesn’t affect me,” Macisso said.

Franceschi said she hopes this first crop of taller, denser building projects inspires other developers. She’d like to see the city look like it did before the federal urban renewal project in the 1970s, which resulted in most of downtown Westbrook’s buildings having one story.

Our historic photos, we have four-story buildings all along Main and those are gone. So it’ll take redevelopment and new structure to create what we did have,” she said.

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