Bangor slowly rediscovers the value of its past

Posted Jan. 14, 2010, at 2:43 p.m.

Editor’s note: Look for the print version of this special report in Friday’s Bangor Daily News

BANGOR, Maine – Christina Baker remembers bundling her 3-year-old daughter into the car on the morning of May 23, 1975, and rushing down to Valley Avenue in Bangor, ready to stop a bulldozer.

Two years earlier, she and her husband, Bill, had stood by, watching the demolition of Bangor’s Bijou Theater as part of the city’s nearly 10-year-old urban renewal program. They collected a few bricks that day and went home.

Baker couldn’t forget it.

In 1975, when she read of plans to demolish the city’s last remaining sawmill, a ramshackle red-brick building along Kenduskeag Stream, Baker decided to launch a petition drive to keep Morse’s Mill from becoming another wrecking ball Bijou.

She walked around her Bangor neighborhood and outside stores, collecting signatures. Then she started hearing from people, including some socially prominent women in Bangor.

Urban Renewal

“These people began to call and say, basically, ‘We’ve been waiting for someone to speak out,’” Baker recalled. While Morse’s Mill was not, properly speaking, part of the federally supported urban renewal program, it was a highly visible connection to the city’s lumbering past – a connection that urban renewal seemed to be eliminating.

“The day came that the bulldozer was down at the site,” said Baker, who is retired and lives in

Bass Harbor. “And $500 was needed to stop the ball-and-crane. And I put out a call and people were at my door with hundred-dollar bills.”

Baker parked across the street from the mill, then ran over, “waving my bills.” But a corner of the building was already gone.

Morse’s Mill was demolished and a parking lot put in its place. It’s still there.

But Baker’s petition drive and a series of steps shortly afterward became a serendipitous moment in Bangor’s long effort to cross the threshold into something new, something modern. By 1977, the city had taken its first big steps toward including preservation, not just demolition, as an option for urban renewal.

“Bangor actually passed what I consider to be the first comprehensive municipal historic ordinance in the state,” said Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., state historian since 2004. “That’s not to say that some other communities had not adopted local historic preservation ordinances. But the Bangor ordinance was and still is one of the finest, most well-crafted, most well-structured ordinances to protect historic areas and individual buildings in a municipality in Maine.”

The preservation ordinance was a reaction to about 20 years of steps taken to eradicate poor housing and commercial deterioration in Bangor, a city of 30,000 whose existence had been closely linked to its location at head of tide on the Penobscot River at Kenduskeag Stream. Complicating matters was the explosive growth of Dow Air Force Base in the early 1950s – and its closure by 1968.

In effect, the city’s leaders attempted a triple play: upgrade housing, revive the downtown commercial district, and reshape a 2,000-acre air base for civilian uses. It wasn’t easy.

The city’s first comprehensive plan, called the Master Plan of 1951, had condemned Bangor’s “crazy quilt” pattern of houses, stores, junkyards, warehouses and apartment buildings.

In 1958, city voters agreed to create the Bangor Urban Renewal Authority, which could buy and sell properties and funnel millions of federal aid dollars.

The authority narrowed Kenduskeag Stream downtown to add more parking spaces, and in 1962, after another referendum, it launched its first big project: “renewal” of the 132-acre Stillwater Park neighborhood between Mount Hope and Stillwater avenues. There, it bought or took by condemnation 218 parcels and relocated 69 families and four businesses.

Among the displaced was Jay O’Loughlin, who ran a greenhouse and flower business on Mount Hope Avenue. His daughter, Jane O’Loughlin French, said her late father hired a lawyer to fight it. “It caused him a lot of stress,” she said.

“Someone somewhere decided that, well, these people can get moved,” French recalled. “I don’t know as they ever bought any better place to live in. … It was just. ‘Let’s clear-cut. Resell it. And now it will be a better tax base.”

Construction of the first urban renewal home in Stillwater Park began in 1966, and French’s family managed to hold on to an acre. But the pain remains.

An Urban Renewal Authority publication in 1968, summarizing 10 years of work, pointed out a paradox in housing renewal: Remaking neighborhoods on a large scale was inhibited by “the lack of sufficient available standard housing in which to move great numbers of families.”

Part of the city’s concern about housing stemmed from the Air Force’s decision in the 1950s to ratchet up its Dow Air Force Base in Bangor into a Strategic Air Command installation.

By the early 1960s, 4,500 Air Force personnel – along with 8,100 dependents and 462 civilians – were connected to Dow. At one point, 1,500 of the city’s 7,500 public school pupils were Air Force kids.

Then the Department of Defense announced in 1964 that it would close the base by 1968, spurring the city to launch a distinctive kind of urban renewal: reuse of a Cold War air base.

From 1965 on, a city staff member coordinated Bangor’s response to the Air Force’s plans to close Dow. A city study concluded that Bangor could own and run a civilian airport at the former base if the federal government maintained the runways and lighting system. The Air National Guard maintained its presence at the airport, and that helped prod the Federal Aviation Administration to keep the control tower open 24 hours a day. Bangor International Airport opened July 1, 1968.

In an almost comical last-minute break, a federal official called then-City Manager Merle Goff to ask whether the city had an economic development project in the $1 million range that was near the final planning stage. “Stretching the truth considerably,” Goff recalled years later, he spoke confidently to the official about the city’s plans for its airport terminal. Then he learned that the proposal needed to be submitted in four days.

“The staff worked on the application the entire weekend in the old City Hall,” Goff told the Bangor Daily News in 1998. The city won the grant. And in 1972 the city dedicated its new passenger terminal.

Other portions of the air base – and 14 buildings – were turned over to the University of Maine, which wanted 2,000 students on a branch campus in 1968. And 118 buildings were earmarked for use in commercial development. On Oct. 30, 1968, General Electric Co. announced plans to locate on 9 acres and employ 130 workers in steam turbine projects.

Dow became a model for U.S. military base closures.

The Stillwater Park housing project was, in a sense, the kickoff to Bangor’s third major urban renewal project of the 1960s: downtown.

By 1964, the authority and its planners were arguing that a gross budget of $8.3 million would cover a five-year urban renewal program for 52 acres, including demolition of more than 100 buildings, construction of parking and resale of cleared land. The logic was to clear the way for new buildings that would raise the property valuations and draw shoppers away from the emerging strip shopping centers on Broadway and across the river in Brewer.

The new downtown would be oriented toward people, “a place of stores and shops, offices, restaurants, hotels, a convention center, banks, parking lots and parks, aesthetics and landscaping,” according to a promotional brochure from 1964. Voters approved the plan that year 4,044 to 3,568, and a series of condemnations and demolitions occurred into the early 1970s.

Among the downtown buildings torn down: City Hall, dating from the 1890s; the Flat Iron Building, dating from the 1830s; the Penobscot Exchange Hotel, with portions dating from the 1820s; and the Bijou, rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1911.

Complicating the planners’ hopes was the shift, in Bangor as well as in the rest of the nation, of retail from downtowns to outlying areas.

The opening of Bangor Mall on a 60-acre former dairy farm in October 1978 drew thousands of people. “The mall was a real ‘wow’ thing for the area,” recalled its first director, Roy Daigle, in a 1997 interview. “From the time it broke ground in 1977, it was being hailed as the Second Coming or something.”

When city government looked at the Bangor market in 1980, it reported that downtown urban renewal led to 230,000 square feet of new bank and office space, 20,500 square feet of restaurants, and 65,000 square feet of retail and service space, totaling $16 million in value.

On the other hand, 1.8 million square feet of shopping centers were built in the area between 1962 and 1978.

There had been this groundswell of inarticulate misery every time something came down,” recalled architectural historian Deborah Thompson, who has documented Bangor’s historical buildings.

After Thompson’s neighbor Christina Baker had tried to stop the demolition of Morse’s Mill in 1975, Thompson told Baker, “You can’t stop now,” Baker recalled.

So Baker, Thompson and a handful of others mapped a strategy to take stock of what Bangor still had – and how to preserve it.

“We sat around my round oak table in the dining room and plotted out a three-day workshop, where we would bring in experts from the region to speak to three different groups, the citizens, the businesspeople and the City Council,” Baker said. “The meetings were filled to overflowing.”

The Maine Historic Preservation Commission had just been established, and Shettleworth, then a 27-year-old architectural historian, was a staff member when the Baker-Thompson group got in touch.

First order of business was a survey of the city.

“And so for the entire summer of 1975, I spent a good deal of my time up in Bangor, creating a series of inventories of historic neighborhoods, house by house, street by street, to document these buildings, to identify where the most significant groupings of buildings were,” Shettleworth said. It became known as the Bangor Historic Resources Inventory.

“It did have, I think, a very important effect on both private citizens and elected officials in the community in convincing people that, yes, Bangor had had a 1911 fire which had destroyed significant buildings in the downtown and, yes, Bangor had engaged in urban renewal and another large body of historic buildings were lost,” Shettleworth said. “But … there was still so much left. And there needed to be a local strategy to preserve those remaining resources.”

The city historic preservation ordinance set up a panel, the Bangor Historic Preservation Commission, which identifies historic districts, landmarks and sites.

Shettleworth said Bangor’s ordinance has teeth and is carefully crafted to follow “one of the best national standards,” known as the secretary of the interior’s standards for rehabilitation. He also cited effective local leadership as another factor in the city’s success with the ordinance.

In the 30 years since its creation, the commission has been instrumental in designating nine historic districts in the city.

Meanwhile, federal rules were changing. Urban renewal by the 1970s had become dirty words, and the top-down style of controlling projects paid for primarily with federal dollars was under fire. In 1974, Congress passed the Housing and Community Development Act, which focused on use of block grants that have since become the standard form of federal aid for housing and renewal projects.

That led Bangor to a new era of projects, still relying heavily on federal dollars but allowing more local control.

Bangor took aim at its Hancock-York streets neighborhood, identified as far back as the 1951 Master Plan as a prime candidate for revival. About eight blocks long and two blocks wide, the Hancock-York redevelopment plan covered 194 structures – with 85 percent not meeting “minimum housing, building, electrical and plumbing code standards,” according to a city report.

The city took years to arrange the project with a developer, but Hancock-York was just the first of a series: the Curve Street neighborhood (1979); the east side neighborhood (1980); the Center Street neighborhood (1983); the Garland-State streets neighborhood (1984); the west side neighborhood (1982), and more. A 2007 summary of the Community Development Block Grant program in Bangor counted $40 million filtered to the city for such projects since 1975.

Shettleworth said the federal government started giving more favorable treatment to rehabilitation of older properties – instead of demolition – around the period of the nation’s bicentennial, 1976. And a federal tax credit gave extra incentive to rehabilitation. Maine began offering its own tax break in 1991.

“It’s a federal urban strategy that is the direct opposite of urban renewal,” Shettleworth said. “Number one, urban renewal gives you money from above and tells you to destroy and rebuild. The tax credit says, ‘I’m offering the private sector, the private investor, the private entrepreneur, a benefit if he or she will properly rehabilitate a historic building.’”

Enter Bob Kelly.

In the early 1980s, Kelly shifted from work with hydropower (and serving as a Penobscot County commissioner) to rehabilitation of old buildings. He and his wife, Suzanne, are owners of House Revivers and have been recognized for their work by preservationist groups.

“When we started, there wasn’t much going on,” Bob Kelly said. “But the groundwork had been laid because there was a historic preservation ordinance in place and a lot of the buildings we renovated downtown were in existing historic districts. And that made it a lot easier for us to use the tax credits to attract investors.”

Kelly, 62, said many of his investors are people who live in the Bangor area. “A lot of them are motivated by a desire to save the old buildings as much as anything,” he said.

Beyond preservation of buildings, downtown Bangor suffered in the 1980s and into the 1990s from on-again, off-again questions about its purpose, focus and viability. Despite a series of consultants’ reports, the core, as planners like to call it, was buffeted by conflicting ideas. Should downtown try to be like Freeport, Portland or none of the above?

“There was a sense that economic development was going to come up from the south,” said Kathryn A. Hunt, of Starboard Leadership Consulting LLC, a Bangor-based firm that provides strategic planning and leadership development. “But we’re not very proximate to Boston.”

Hunt said it’s possible for a community the size of Bangor to define its purpose by showing some imagination and courage. She recalled the naysaying she heard before Bangor began hosting the National (now American) Folk Festival in 2002.

Still, she said, “There’s a precariousness to Bangor. It’s holding on, but not necessarily gaining.”

In recent years, a series of changes – including renovation of the Penobscot Theatre on Main Street, the opening of a range of eateries and watering holes, and an increase in the number of people living downtown – has enlivened the place.

“Downtown Bangor has benefited from a remarkable resurgence and renaissance – even in the past five years,” said an admittedly biased Rep. Steven Butterfield, D-Bangor, who lives “in a beautifully and carefully restored apartment in a restored building” downtown, as he described it. “It’s the perfect combination of small-town feel and big-city lifestyle.”

Another factor was the creation in 1987 of what at first was called Bangor Center Management Corp., now known simply as Bangor Center Corp. An assessment on property owners in the downtown district provides some funding, and the city kicks in staff help.

Its president, Brian Ames, of Ames A/E, an architecture-engineering firm, said Bangor Center is working these days on marketing and promoting of long-term programs rather than one-time events to draw people downtown.

“It’s much more directed, targeted than it has been,” Ames said. In addition to efforts focused on signage and aesthetics, the center wants programs that keep people coming back to downtown Bangor – for concerts, an outdoor market, even holiday Santa workshops.

It’s a shift that Christina Baker has noted, 35 years after her petition drive to save Morse’s Mill.

“We still lament the buildings that are gone,” Baker said. But she pointed out “that amazing photograph in the Bangor Daily News last week of 2,000 people downtown, celebrating New Year’s Eve.” Her husband told her it looked like a Norman Rockwell painting.

“The fabric of the downtown is there,” Baker said. “And it’s a thrill to know that we have this now.”

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