February 19, 2018
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How to revitalize Bangor’s downtown

In its Friday, Jan. 20 editorial, “Renewal Done Right,” the BDN condemns the urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s — which bulldozed large sections of the historic center of Bangor — calling the cure “worse than the disease.” The editorial goes on to recommend single-use zoning. This, too, was one of the mantras of mid-20th century urban renewal which also contributed to the death of our inner cities.

If Bangor is to succeed in revitalizing its downtown it must create a lively center, a place people choose to spend their time as residents, workers, customers and visitors. The center must be a place that is vital and inviting for most if not all of the 24-hour day.

The days when people walked from their homes to buy groceries, a hammer and nails, newspapers or a cup of coffee may be long gone in Bangor, as the editorial asserted, but it is those activities that continue to make many of our cities and towns great places to live, work, shop and visit.

The Old Port area of Portland is just one of many examples. Many people would welcome the experience of working, shopping, living and relaxing in a vibrant city center where all day-to-day needs are convenient and within walking distance of work and home. The goal for downtown Bangor should be to re-create the broad mix of uses and activities that urban renewal destroyed 50 years ago.

Fortunately, downtown Bangor retains a remnant of its past. Main Street north of Union Street, Central Street, Hammond Street and a few of the side streets still offer the urban experience that has made many of our American towns and cities successful today. Buildings along this Main Street corridor often have several uses. The street level is typically commercial, with shop windows facing the sidewalk, creating a lively pedestrian environment and streetscape. Tradesmen, offices and originally residential uses fill the upper floors of these buildings.

Many of these buildings are fine examples of 19th and early 20th century architecture and urban design that could be used to develop design guidelines for the redevelopment of central Bangor. These buildings come right up to the sidewalks, creating a well-defined streetscape. Many of the building facades were designed with a base (the commercial street level), a middle and a top which maintain a human scale to this urban environment. The buildings are roughly of similar height, protecting the street level from severe winds and downdrafts.

Unfortunately, the fine urbanism of the Main Street corridor is too limited. Walk one block and downtown Bangor quickly loses its appeal. Close to 50 percent of the area east and west of Main Street is dedicated to surface parking. The few newer buildings typically have a single use, are set back and separated from the sidewalk by parking and/or planting and do nothing to create a streetscape or an urban environment that is attractive or appealing.

The revitalization of Bangor’s center can succeed if the city encourages new development based on the positive attributes of its Main Street corridor. Bangor would be far wiser to encourage a wide mix of uses, instead of single-use zoning, with new high-density urban housing and hotels being a prime component of any initial development.

New downtown residents and guests would create a demand for new commercial activity and would create an active downtown area that does not shut down at the end of the working day. New commercial activity would in turn create an urban environment that is more attractive to office workers and visitors.

All new development should be encouraged to build up to the sidewalk and to include a mix of uses including street-level commercial space. Downtown buildings have a responsibility to create a positive urban environment and should not primarily be monuments to their owners or designers.

Surface parking lots should be discouraged as they do nothing to create a positive urban environment. Instead, parking should be incorporated into new buildings and should avoid dominating any street frontage.

Bangor has many great attributes on which to build a revitalized center. We need to recognize that successful urban centers require a mixture of many uses gathered in an urban environment and streetscape that is inviting and attractive.

Clifton Page has practiced urban design and architecture in Maine, Boston and London. He lives in Blue Hill.

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