2015-03-06 / Front Page

City develops plan to remake oldest commercial shopping

By Duke Harrington
Staff writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — By most measures, South Portland’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee did not draw a large crowd to a pair of public meetings called Feb. 26 to take comment on a recently released master plan for redevelopment of the Mill Creek shopping district.

About 20 people attended a session held for business owners and residents of the 31.6-acre downtown area, bounded by the Casco Bay Bridge and Broadway on one side, Ocean and E streets on the other. Then, an additional 15 city residents showed up for a follow-up session held to accommodate the general public.

So, seemingly, fewer than 40 people had an interest in a plan that will remake one of South Portland’s most vital regions for generations to come. Still, as City Councilor Maxine Beecher pointed out, that was a phenomenal turnout by normal standards.

“Honestly,” she said, “I’ve hosted public forums where literally one person showed up.”

Among those who did attend, the 108-page Mill Creek plan won high praise.

“When I saw this plan I was so excited about it and everyone I’ve talked to has been excited about it,” said resident Kathryn DiPhilippo. “Mill Creek, to me, is a place I’ve never been really enamored with, but I’ve always wanted to thrive.”

As executive director of the South Portland Historical Society, DiPhilippo knows a thing or two about local history. Mill Creek is not one of South Portland’s original villages, she said. It was simply a part of Knightville that sort of got carved off and developed its own identity starting in 1955 when the Mill Creek Shopping Plaza was built. Closely following construction of Shaw’s Supermarket in 1951, the Mill Creek Plaza was the first strip mall in Maine and, while it was an economic boon to the city at the time, leading a carcentric revolution that eventually resulted in construction of the Maine Mall on the opposite side of the city, it is now seen as something far less impressive than it once was.

“Mill Creek at the moment is pretty ugly looking,” said Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte, voicing a common refrain at the town meetings.

“I think this is a great plan,” she said.

The plan envisions a transformation of Mill Creek from a vast expanse of pavement bordered by two big-box shopping centers and dotted with what one resident derided as “ranchstyle” businesses, into a “highly walkable” mixed-use area of storefronts and walk-up apartments.

The hope is to replicate the recent resurgence in the adjoining Knightville district by crafting zoning rules to enable buildings as high as five-stories tall to pop up, somewhat mimicking the look and feel of the Old Port section of Portland, located almost directly across the Fore River. Most importantly, the plan looks to take what DiPhilippo noted is not an actual village and make it one, creating a genuine neighborhood in an area that, according to the most recent census, currently has fewer than 20 residents.

In large part, the plan is driven by an exercise residents, business owners and city staff engaged in two years ago, during events hosted by Sustain Southern Maine.

In 2010, the Greater Portland Council of Governments won a $1.6 million Sustainable Communities Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the motto, “By choice not by chance,” Sustain Southern Maine was created and has been busy ever since trying to help a swath of the state from Brunswick to Kittery find ways to “absorb significant shares of most kinds of growth” through the next 25 years.”

That effort led to the selection of 10 pilot projects, dubbed “learning laboratories,” among them South Portland’s Mill Creek area.

In a greater Portland transportation study that fueled the Sustain Southern Maine workshops, Charlie Colgan, a Maine School of Public Service professor who led the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Group from 1992 to 2011, predicted a 13.5 percent spike in private, nonfarm employment in southern Maine through 2035. That translates to between 3,000 and 3,500 new jobs in South Portland, largely in health care and social assistance (foreseen to grow 74.4 percent) and educational services (up 61.4 percent). That job growth is expected to bring up to 2,400 new households to South Portland, already Maine’s fourth-largest city.

The initial idea of the Sustain Southern Maine study was to target 10 percent of the growth South Portland is expected to experience by 2035 into the Mill Creek area, and to encourage residential development in what is now a sea of paved parking areas interrupted by islands of retail shops.

However, that meant finding a way to accommodate up to 175,000-square-feet of additional commercial space, as well as 240 housing units and 300 local jobs.

The new plan looks to do that, while adding such amenities as a $3 million pedestrian bridge over Waterman Drive and the entrance to the Casco Bay Bridge, at the intersection with Broadway, along the city’s Greenbelt Trail. It’s an area in which pedestrians, in the words of Brigham Street resident Russ Lunt, “now have to take their lives into their hands,” to get across.

Traffic concern was a common refrain of the meetings.

“Hinckley [Drive] and Broadway — it’s NASCAR.”

“It’s not a walking environment,” said Pine Street resident Carl Eppich, noting that it’s “impossible” to walk from the new CVS store to Shaw’s supermarket. But, as City Planner Tex Haeuser pointed out, the CVS rebuild from two years ago met the area’s current zoning rules, which are now more than 60 years old.

Haeuser says he expects to introduce zoning changes to the city council during the next year that will permit greater residential development in the area. The time may also be right to bring to South Portland a relatively new trend among urban planners, in which the planning board concerns itself more with the design elements of a building and less with its intended use, he said.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, the plan actually calls for the creation of more streets in the Mill Creek area. However, Mark Eyerman, president of Portland consulting firm Planning Decisions, who facilitated the two meetings, said additional shorter streets, especially when bounded by larger buildings and on-street parking, would serve to slow traffic. Moreover, the new streets would have sidewalks, which are altogether absent from Mill Creek.

Haeuser says the plan includes several concepts developed by the city’s comprehensive plan implantation committee. In addition to allowances for taller buildings — as high as seven stories, given an option for two floors of covered parking — new buildings also could be pulled closer to the street and would have to meet so-called “green” design standards.

Haeuser said he also expects a tax increment financing district may be created to help spur development, while the $90,000 the city takes in annually from its current downtown TIF could be used to jumpstart city improvements to the area.

However, there is a bit of a chicken-and-egg aspect to the plan, as many residents pointed out. While the city can make some improvements, and the plan has several concept drawings of grand, unified streetscapes, the plan largely depends on existing property owners selling to new developers, or else voluntarily transforming their buildings and lots.

“If you are going to wait for an existing company to move, this will happen higgildy-pigilly,” Whyte said.

“It will occur bit-by-bit,” agreed Eyerman.

“Well, you’ve got to be incredibly careful then that this doesn’t turn into a real mess,” Whyte countered.

“My suggestion is to be more aggressive about getting this implemented,” Eppich said. “This needs to be municipally incentivized.”

But on the other hand, a number of people questioned the possibility of the city strong-arming property owners into changes, while questioning where existing businesses were supposed to go in the new concept drawings.

“We show these pictures of new buildings replacing existing buildings, and maybe it should be said that the idea is that existing uses, and existing businesses, would find a place within the new buildings,” Haeuser said. “We’re not trying to move people out.”

“This at least plants some seeds, some ideas, a bit of a vision,” he added. “We’re not trying to force anybody to do anything, but we do think there is a potential for things to happen here and, frankly, we think there’s money to be made. It can be a win-win.”

In the end, most attendees seemed to agree with the assessment of former city councilor Michael Pock.

“Those who fail to plan, plan to fail,” he said. “At least we have a plan.”

A copy of the plan is available on the city’s website, www.southportland.org.

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