Floodwater from the Kennebec River laps in April 2020 at dumpsters behind the Vickery Building at the Front Street parking lot in Augusta. City officials are seeking federal grant funding to raise the height of the parking lot by 2 feet to ward against flooding. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

AUGUSTA — City officials are seeking federal grant funding for a $4 million proposal to raise the level of the riverfront Front Street parking lot to reduce the number of times it floods, and to add an observation deck that would look out over the Kennebec River from downtown Water Street.

City councilors expressed interest in the proposal to improve the downtown Front Street area along the Kennebec River, but did not set aside any funding for it.

Now they are seeking to tap into federal funding via congressionally directed spending by submitting requests to all three members of Augusta’s federal Congressional delegation, starting with Sen. Angus King’s office where officials planned to submit their request last week.

The proposal, put together last year by city staff members, would raise by about 2 feet the level of much, but not all, of the flood-prone Front Street parking lot, which floods almost annually with water from the Kennebec River.

In a letter to King expressing support for the project, Mayor Mark O’Brien said adding fill to raise the level of the parking lot would be a substantial improvement, but not be enough to avoid flooding altogether.

“Over the past decade, Augusta’s downtown has experienced a dramatic revitalization,” O’Brien wrote to King. “A key to this renewed growth has been a focus on the Kennebec River. Unfortunately, the Kennebec River floods on an annual basis, which closes the riverfront area for parking and activities.


“The proposed resiliency project will raise the street and parking area a full two feet, which will reduce the instances of flooding by half — from an annual event to once every two to three years.”

Buildings are reflected in a large puddle in the lowest part of the Front Street parking lot in April 2017 as the Kennebec River begins to crest over its banks. City officials are seeking federal grant funding to raise the height of the parking lot by 2 feet to ward against flooding. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal file

The project would also add an observation deck to a now-vacant, city-owned lot on the river side of Water Street, extending toward Front Street, which pedestrians would access from Water Street and where they could sit and watch the river or take in views of Fort Western across the Kennebec River.

Officials hope the changes would draw more people downtown, preserve about the same number of parking spaces now in existence, make it easier for businesses to locate on Front Street by reducing the frequency of flooding and help refocus the downtown toward the now-clean Kennebec River, where sturgeon can be seen leaping at certain times of the year and bald eagles often fly.

“What this does is substantially enhance the city’s turn back towards the river,” Matt Nazar, Augusta’s director of development services, said of the proposal when a somewhat different version of it was presented to councilors last May. “The downtown had its back to the river for the last 150 years for a reason: Because it was a transportation corridor, it was a sewer line, not a place where you wanted to necessarily spend a lot of time.

“That’s not the case anymore. The river is clean. It’s a substantial amenity to the downtown, to the downtown businesses. This would also reduce the risk to the downtown businesses with respect to flooding. That’s a substantial enhancement as well.”

The project would move Front Street, which now is legally designated as between the backs of Water Street buildings and a retaining wall, away from the buildings and down to the middle of the parking area that would be raised by adding fill.


Nazar said the fill would be reinforced with “armoring” along the river, similar to the rocks there now, to prevent it from being washed out when still-inevitable flooding occurs.

He said the reinforcement would allow businesses to make better use of the newly freed up space behind the buildings, and hopefully draw more businesses to the location.

The project would not bury the utility lines in the area, which are strung between poles and buildings, which At-Large Councilor Heather Pouliot said she wants hidden due to their unsightliness.

“I think if we put a lot of money into Front Street without burying the power lines, it’s still going to look terrible,” Pouliot said when the proposal was presented. “Because we’re going to have the power lines running from the buildings, I still want to find a way to do that, and I’m going to push for it. But I like the project overall. I like the raising (of the parking lot). That would be awesome.”

Only the north end of the parking lot, from Winthrop Street and heading north, would be raised, at least in this phase of the project, Nazar said. He said that section of the lot is lower than the southern end and more prone to flooding.

City councilors expressed support for the project, but said they had concerns about paying for it.


Ward 3 Councilor Mike Michaud said he loved the idea, and saw it as a way to better utilize the river as a resource to help boost the city’s economy and population. He said he worried, however, it could be tough to sell to taxpayers, if they have to pay for it.

City Manager Susan Robertson said that after councilors expressed enthusiasm for the project, city staff members kept it in mind and sought funding opportunities.

Robertson said Keith Luke, Augusta’s economic development director, prepared a submittal seeking congressionally directed spending for the project.

More than a dozen projects in central Maine secured federal money last year through that funding, previously known as earmarks.

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