2017-08-25 / Community

City adopts ‘master plan’ for west end

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — Finally, South Portland’s west end neighborhoods are getting some love.

After getting an introduction to a newly created west end master plan at an Aug. 14 workshop, the city council fast tracked acceptance of the the 69-page document, doing so unanimously at its Aug. 21 meeting. The plan envisions a new future for what has traditionally been some of the city’s newest and poorest communities, such as Redbank and Brick Hill, located between Route 1 and the Maine Mall.

Of nearly 3,000 residents in the area, more than 90 percent are renters, and of those, a large percentage are recent immigrants and others for whom English is a second, or even third language.

Created by the the Greater Portland Council of Governments for $30,000 – half of the which came from the city’s 2016 Capital Improvements Program budget, while the other half came from a federal Community Development Block Grant award – the drafting process included a significant public outreach effort that spanned a host surveys, public meetings and neighborhood workshops.

Among the plan’s key recommendations, it suggests a need for “neighborhood connectivity and regional access,” urges the development of new “neighborhood core” areas with a mixed-use of affordable housing and retail shops, stumps for creation of a new tax increment financing (TIF) district designed to jump-start construction of more low-cost rental units, seeks new zoning rules “to improve and simplify the hodgepodge of existing zones, and champions the creation of new recreation and open space amenities.”

“This is the beginning of some really great things happening out there,” said Councilor Linda Cohen. “For years and years and years people on the west end have made comments that the east end gets everything. And even though that’s not always true, and it’s not true, it has felt like it to some people out there and now we are turning our attention to the west end.”

Council enthusiasm was tempered somewhat by planning board member Adrian Dowling, who lives in the Brick Hill neighborhood.

“The fun part is creating a master plan, the difficult part is implementing it. That’s where it gets down to brass tacks, and (questions of) how are we going to pay for this, or are we going to pay for this,” he said. “I hope that when you get to that point you will be cognizant that the neighborhood is 100 percent supportive of this plan.”

“Now we have to make sure that there is substance behind the promise,” said Councilor Eben Rose. “We have a plan. Now the implementation is what will build the faith that this is real process and not just a pro forma exercise to placate the masses.”

Because a high number of west end residents are not plugged into South Portland’s established social networks, Greater Portland Council of Governments did not rely solely on one or two planning charrettes to gather feedback on community needs. Instead, it took a proactive approach, augmenting public workshop sessions by dispatching researchers to various city committee and community meetings, including the regular suppers put on at the Redbank Community Center.

“We took a really unique approach to the public engagement process of this plan,” said Greater Portland Council of Governments Planning Director Stephanie Carver, who was project manager for creation of the west end plan. “We really sought out a lot of one-on-one connections.”

Calling the plan creation “an innovative process,” Rose said, “This is part of a way of constantly inventing better ways to be a democratic government.”

According to Greater Portland Council of Governments land use planner Jessa Berna the plan got started by spinning out a 2015 transit supportive development study undertaken by Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, a collaborative effort of six area municipalities – Gorham, Portland, Scarborough, South Portland, Standish and Westbrook.

As such, it’s not surprising, she said, the first two of the five study objectives both focus on ways to get residents in and out of both west end neighborhoods and the wider region, in ways that don’t involve owning a personal automobile.

“One of the major barriers that came up again and again through our extensive public engagement had to do with the barrier through the neighborhoods that is Westbrook Street,” Berna said, addressing the frustration of area pedestrians. “There’s not really good sidewalks and bike lanes and this is seen as a real divide in the neighborhood, separating the two sides.”

Recommended action steps include not only building sidewalks, with new developments required to contribute on streets by their sites, but increasing street lighting, adding way finding signs, improving the visibility of crosswalks and finding ways to calm traffic speed.

The plan also calls on beefing up public transportation routes and linking the neighborhoods to the Maine Mall, local schools and other amenities though a new system of sidewalks and trails, including a pedestrian bridge across Long Creek.

“The idea also is to continue engaging during the implementation phase with a lot of the same stakeholders we connected with during the planning process,” Berna said.

Other plan recommendations call on enhancing the Redbank Community Center with a library branch, a public computer lab, satellite city offices and second municipal pool.

“That Redbank Center is already so much of a resource right now the idea is just to enhance it further,” Berna said.

The plan also envisions transforming “the triangle” bounded by Westbrook Street and Devereaux Circle East, where Le Variety is located, into a neighborhood center with indoor and outdoor public spaces.

“We want to give the west end its own center, with it’s own feel and character to it,” Berna said, comparing the site to older South Portland neighborhoods, like Willard Square and Knightville.

The plan did not provide a cost estimate for any of its recommendations. However, those outlays will come down the road, following passage of various zoning changes needed to enable many of the plan concepts. Still, redevelopment, when it comes, will not come cheap, although Dowling advised the council that dollars expended now pale in comparison to the cost of doing nothing.

“This money will be very well spent, and if you don’t pay now, you will pay later,” he said.

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