While ‘rebirth’ of Union Station fizzled after initial discussion 3 years ago, renewed talks possible

The owners of Penobscot Plaza in Bangor would like to rebuild the strip mall to resemble the building it replaced: Union Station.
Courtesy photo
The owners of Penobscot Plaza in Bangor would like to rebuild the strip mall to resemble the building it replaced: Union Station.
Posted Aug. 13, 2013, at 5:41 p.m.
Union Station on Washington Street dominated downtown after opening in 1907 until its demolition in 1961. The brick structure served Maine Central Railroad passengers, as well as the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Its grand illuminated bell tower clock was visible for many miles.
Spike Webb
Union Station on Washington Street dominated downtown after opening in 1907 until its demolition in 1961. The brick structure served Maine Central Railroad passengers, as well as the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad. Its grand illuminated bell tower clock was visible for many miles.

BANGOR, Maine — Three years after the idea was raised, Bangor isn’t any closer to reviving one of its most treasured and missed landmarks.

In 2010, Ames A/E Architects & Engineers presented grand plans for a $10.6 million three-phase project to convert Washington Street’s Penobscot Plaza into a building that would harken back to Union Station, a historic train depot that has been mourned by many Bangor residents who remember it from before its demolition in the early 1960s.

A few years after the demolition of the prominent brick structure, which opened in 1907, Penobscot Plaza opened its doors on a site just feet away from the station’s original footprint. The demolition was the result of private enterprise, but the site later became part of the city’s downtown urban renewal effort, resulting in the plaza development.

Jack Eisentrager, president of the plaza’s owners association and who owns the appliance store Dunnett Inc. which is housed in the plaza, said he’s not sure how realistic the plan is at this point.

When Ames and the owners of the plaza presented their idea to a council committee back in April 2010, one of the main sticking points was that the riverfront area behind the plaza needed serious improvement.

Plaza owners said they saw signs of erosion and disrepair behind their building. Eisentrager said the rear parking lot has “sunk” over the years, and sinkholes open up from time to time and need to be filled. The owners also asked that the area around the railroad tracks and land around them be repaired, as well as the construction of pedestrian amenities near the tracks. These likely would be expensive endeavors for the city and railroad.

“Without some things happening behind the plaza, I don’t see this happening anytime soon,” Eisentrager said, adding that the plaza owners haven’t moved forward with fundraising efforts and likely wouldn’t until the waterfront concerns are resolved.

A lot has changed since 2010, and it seems the project largely has been forgotten. In 2010, several new members joined the council and the city hired a new manager. The city’s then-development director retired in 2012. The plaza owners attended a few council committee meetings in 2010 to discuss the project, but those talks petered out and the plan hasn’t come up in discussions since. A few stores in the plaza have changed as well, and Aubuchon Hardware closed its store at the location earlier this year. The flat economy around 2010 also didn’t help.

“We haven’t heard anything and we have not revisited it since that point,” Eisentrager said, adding that he doesn’t believe plaza owners followed up with the city after those initial talks.

Council Chairman Nelson Durgin said Tuesday that he thinks the issue probably fell off the table with the shift in councilors and city staff. Durgin joined the council months after those initial committee meetings, but remembers seeing the plans in news reports.

“For many years, people have rued the day that we tore down Union Station,” Durgin said, adding that he would be interested in seeing the unique building revived someday.

Gerry Palmer, who was on the City Council in 2010, said he “always thought that it would be a wonderful thing if we could get Union Station back somehow.”

Palmer also believes the effort fizzled because of the shift in council and staff positions around 2010 and the drop in communications with the owners afterward.

Without that waterfront and railroad work, Eisentrager said he isn’t sure plaza ownership could generate enough interest in funding the expensive building and site renovations.

The city has done extensive work along the Bangor Waterfront in recent years, but most has been from the area near the Kenduskeag Stream downriver to Hollywood Casino and hasn’t reached the Penobscot Plaza area at the other side of the Kenduskeag.

Eisentrager said he thought it would be an “excellent idea” to revive the discussion with the council at some point.

“[This project] is something I think a lot of people would like to see,” he said. “Whether it will happen, I’m just not sure.”

Palmer said he’d still like to see the project happen, as it would be a “rebirth” that wouldn’t be as important 20 years from now because “the people who remember it will be gone.”

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