2015-07-03 / Front Page

Mill Creek master plan heads to council vote

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A master plan designed to govern redevelopment of South Portland’s Mill Creek shopping district is on the fast track. Following a June 22 workshop session, the city council is scheduled to vote on the plan at its July 6 meeting. Although a host of zoning changes will be required to make the plan leap off the page, the 114-page document itself will not be subject to a public hearing and second reading. It is expected to be adopted in its entirety at the July session.

To judge from reaction at the recent workshop, that vote will be an enthusiastic, “yes.”

“Everything I see I like, I only wish something like this would be done on my part of Westbrook Street,” Councilor Brad Fox said.

Councilor Claude Mogran agreed, calling the plan, “loaded with insight and vision.”

The plan envisions a transformation of Mill Creek from a vast expanse of pavement bordered by two bigbox shopping centers and dotted with businesses in small, ranch-style buildings 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, somewhat mimicking the look and feel of the Old Port section of Portland, located almost directly across the Fore River, but with the addition of underground parking and rooftop gardens.

Most importantly, the plan looks to create a genuine neighborhood feel in an area that, according to the most recent census, has fewer than 20 residents.

Mill Creek is not one of South Portland’s original villages. Early on, it was simply a part of Knightville that developed its own identity starting in 1955 when the Mill Creek Shopping Plaza was built. That closely followed construction of Shaw’s Supermarket in 1951, resulting in Maine’s first genuine strip mall. While that was an economic boon to the city at the time, leading a car-centric revolution that eventually resulted in construction of the Maine Mall on the opposite side of the city, it was soon seen as something far less impressive. According to City Councilor Tom Blake, nearby Mill Creek Park was originally called Hinckley Park — note the adjacent Hinckley Street. However, that name was given to another park and the official designation changed to Mill Creek Park only in an attempt to “dress up” the shopping area.

“Even by the 1970s, it was faded and worn,” he said. “I avoid going to Mill Creek if I possibly can, just because it’s so unappealing.”

In large part, the plan was driven by an exercise residents, business owners and city staff engaged in two years ago, during meetings 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, Charles 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, crafted by the city’s Comprehensive Plan Implementation Committee, looks to do that while adding a $3 million pedestrian bridge over Waterman Drive and the entrance to the Casco Bay Bridge at its intersection with Broadway.

The resulting plan also envisions a wide range of changes to the area, many involving longstanding businesses. However, as he has since the first public meetings on the topic, City Planner Tex Haeuser said the plan’s many illustrations are only meant to show “what is possible,” once the council amends zoning rules in the area now more than 60 years old.

“Yankee Ford has been there forever and ever and ever. They may never leave,” said Mayor Linda Cohen, referring to one drawing in the plan that shows the car lot at the base of the Casco Bay Bridge transformed into apartment buildings with a large, expansive green space.

“But if something else happens there, or someone else comes in, or someone wants to develop in these places, this is the plan they will have to develop by,” she said. “I think that is exciting. We need to be planning for the future like this and not always reacting.”

Haeuser said while the property on Broadway that houses Pratt-Abbott Cleaners is his “number one redevelopment priority” due to documentation of contamination there discovered during the process of creating the new master plan, the hope is to incentivize a transformation, not force it.

“In a sort of theoretical, hopefully not-too-Pollyannaish way, there’s a hope that we can get a virtuous cycle going on here,” he said, adding city initiatives may help to feed redevelopment without forcing change on property owners, or making them feel unwelcome in the city.

“There’s no stronger signal to a property owner that the city will accept new investment and redevelopment than when you tell them we’ve changed the rules that allow you to do more there,” he said. “But we’re not guaranteeing redevelopment will occur. We’re just saying that the way the place is now is less than satisfactory. This isn’t really the downtown we want and it can be better in a lot of different ways.”

“We are recording the city’s intent for what takes place down in that area,” Morgan agreed. “We’re saying, in this huge area, this is the direction we are pushing folks. Can we snatch businesses up with eminent domain? Nobody’s there. That’s not what the intent is. But I think organically, and through a process of addition and attrition, we may actually arrive here (at the plan).

“The important thing is that when an investor comes to this city, the first thing they get is this record of the city’s intent,” Morgan said. “By embracing this, we are saying zoning will work for you if your intent matches our intent.”

The one sticking point to the June 22 workshop was the relative dearth of affordable housing in South Portland, with some councilors expressing concern that redevelopment might push property values and living costs even higher, leading to “gentrification” of the Mill Creek area.

“I think it’s important to think about what kind of workforce comes from this type of plan and where will these people live,” said Councilor Patti Smith. “I think the affordability is something we should keep our eye on, because I hear it time and time again, working in Portland, that people can’t afford to live there anymore.”

“This isn’t really a Mill Creek issue, it’s a regional issue, and it’s serious,” Blake said. “I think we as a South Portland Council are going to have to deal with it. Until then, we’re just fostering the problem.”

But Morgan countered that the cost of rebuilding the area to make it more visually appealing may hinder the city’s ability to implement any of a number of suggestions made to create affordable housing units in the downtown area.

“Reality instructs me that urban density produces a higher cost per square foot,” he said. “Those (affordable housing) suggestions, in the long-term growth of the area, may not be able to sustain themselves economically.”

Still, the more immediate concern for the council will be adopting the zoning changes recommended in the master plan.

“We have all driven through that Mill Creek area and thought, ‘Oh, my God, isn’t that sad,” said Councilor Maxine Beecher. “But it’s easier to build a comprehensive plan than it is to implement one, so it’s not just words on paper.”

“Until we take steps to put the zoning in place, we haven’t protected ourselves yet. We just have a master plan on a shelf,” Councilor Melissa Linscott agreed. “I think it’s important to implement this as soon as possible, really.”

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