2013-05-17 / Front Page

New look for Mill Creek?

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND – From banks to bagels to barbers to books, the Mill Creek shopping center offers consumers in South Portland plenty of amenities.

The area’s suburban strip-mall layout of connected storefronts and ample parking is convenient for drivers, but up to now, the Mill Creek area has never been much to look at, according to the city’s planning staff. Staff believes a redesign of the area could be make it more inviting to pedestrian traffic, much like the Knightville neighborhood next door.

To explore the question of how to improve the Mill Creek area, the city of South Portland has partnered with Sustain Southern Maine, a federally funded regional planning project led by the Greater Portland Council of Governments. The Mill Creek area is one of 10 Maine neighborhoods in 10 different cities and towns for which Sustain Southern Maine has created a pilot study to brainstorm ideas for growth.

Mill Creek was the first neighborhood Sustain Southern Maine looked at. Since then, the organization has created similar plans for neighborhoods in New Gloucester, Gray, Standish, Westbrook, Portland, Scarborough, Kennebunk, Wells and Kittery.

Representatives from the city and Sustain Southern Maine held a workshop May 9 to present short-term and long-term ideas to improve the Mill Creek area as a center for both business and residential growth.

To achieve that growth, the pilot study focused on an issue Mill Creek residents have discussed for years: how to make their neighborhood more vibrant and lively for new businesses to attract foot traffic, therefore creating more nearby housing.

South Portland Planning Director Tex Haeuser said the discussion has taken place in the city since the landing point of the Casco Bay Bridge moved in 1997, opening up streets that no longer had thousands of cars constantly streaming through.

“People at various stages have said they would prefer if the pattern (of Mill Creek) wasn’t the suburban shopping center, but more of a village downtown,” Haeuser said.

Sustain Southern Maine presented three posters to the roughly 20 residents, business owners and city staff in attendance at the workshop. The first sketched short-term, immediate plans that could improve the Mill Creek area.

Waterman Drive was a main focus of that first stage of improvements. Haeuser said Waterman Drive is wider than it needs to be for the little use it sees, so the pilot study suggests providing parking and pedestrian amenities such as bike paths and landscaping work. The pilot study also suggests an enhanced connection from the greenbelt to the shopping center in the Broadway area.

In the second phase, the pilot study suggests more sweeping changes to Mill Creek that could be goals for the long-term future, and the third does not focus on a timeline, but rather creates a plan based on goals laid out in South Portland’s comprehensive plan.

The neighborhood sketches in the final two plans are recognizable as the Mill Creek neighborhood, but just barely. They include numerous additions of mixed-use, commercial and residential buildings that would promote pedestrian traffic through the entire neighborhood and, according to the phase-two plan, add 49,000 square feet of commercial space and 173 new residential units.

Jon Platt, owner of Nonesuch Books in the Mill Creek shopping center, said creating a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is a worthy goal. However, because the greenbelt is so close by, Platt said he would like to see the city focus on bikers rather than foot traffic.

“There are only a certain number of people within walking distance. There are far more people within bicycle-riding distance,” Platt said.

Platt intended to attend Thursday’s workshop but could not because of an illness. He also suggested the city look at ways to slow vehicle traffic coming off the Casco Bay Bridge, because many pedestrians avoid an area with high-speed traffic.

Still, Platt is happy with the space Nonesuch Books currently occupies, especially the parking available for shoppers. Haeuser said the plans will not affect the area in a negative way for those who choose to take their car, only improve Mill Creek for those who choose to walk or bike.

Although South Portland residents don’t like comparing their city to the one on the other side of the bridge, Haeuser said the model in Portland neighborhoods like East Bayside shows these plans are viable.

“We’d like to see more people living here. Given the trend in the Portland area, there’s no reason to think it couldn’t happen,” Haeuser said.

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