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BANGOR, Maine — The city wants to breathe new life into Bangor’s downtown West Market Square, but the proposal has raised some parking concerns among business owners and questions from a pair of councilors about whether the city even needs an abutting downtown street anymore.
City officials say the goals of the $800,000-plus project are to give the square a fresh look, improve safety and, eventually, connect Bangor’s downtown with the waterfront, a concept city staff and councilors have been trying to pin down ever since they made revitalization of the city’s formerly industrialized waterfront a priority.
With the right improvements, the square could serve as a downtown “gateway to the waterfront,” said Amanda Soucier, the city engineer who unveiled plans for West Market Square to the Business and Economic Development Committee on Monday.
“The city also would like to maximize the potential of the unique space that is West Market Square and continue to use it for smaller-scale events such as concerts, vendor fairs, holiday celebrations and other art and cultural events,” Soucier said.
One of the earliest steps in the West Market Square overhaul happened last year, when the city removed the Continuity of Community Sculpture, later relocating it to the Bangor Waterfront.
The plan involves removing just about everything from West Market Square — several current trees, planter boxes along Broad Street, shrubbery, sidewalk surfaces, trash receptacles and light fixtures — to essentially start from scratch on the site.
One of the first steps would be replacing aging utility infrastructure under the square and Broad Street. Some of the sewer and water lines running under that part of the city are well over a century old, and the city has been looking for an opportunity to dig in and update them.
After that, the city would install new lights, doubling the lighting in the area to make it feel safer and more welcoming; set up new trash cans; and plant new trees and small perennials to replace tall shrubs and other trees that hindered visibility.
New brickwork would be laid down in the square, including a blue paving stone spiral design — similar to what was put in at the Bangor Waterfront — that the city hopes to eventually connect to the waterfront.
The sidewalk across the street from the West Market plaza would be widened, providing more room for foot traffic and potentially for Paddy Murphy’s to expand its outdoor dining space. That also means losing five on-street parking spaces.
Council Chairman Nelson Durgin and Councilor Patricia Blanchette said during Monday’s meeting that they felt the city should give more serious consideration to the idea of shutting down Broad Street to traffic entirely. Durgin also said he’s worried that pulling out shrubs and trees will mean the square will consist of too much barren brickwork.
Paul Beaulieu, owner of the Big Easy Lounge at the Charles Inn, said Wednesday that the idea of shutting down Broad Street was “asinine” and likely would hurt his and other businesses, as well as make it difficult for emergency vehicles to get to businesses in the West Market Square area. Inn customers and delivery drivers might be forced to park on Main Street to unload, he said. Other business owners along the square want that street to remain open, according to George Kinghorn of the Downtown Bangor Partnership.
Beaulieu said he supports the bulk of the city’s plan as is, though the loss of parking spaces might create some challenges for businesses and customers. He says the current trees in the square require a lot of cleanup, because of the leaves and red berries that fall and stain furniture and surfaces. He said he’d like to see the city consider some sort of public bathroom facilities because right now, local businesses are forced to open their facilities to the influx of people attending events or walking around downtown who might not be patrons of the business.
The plan, which the engineering department crafted after meetings with business owners in the area, has the support of the Downtown Bangor Partnership and Historic Preservation Commission, according to city officials.
City officials would like councilors to decide quickly whether they want to move forward with the project. The current timeline would allow the project to go out to bid on Aug. 27, with a winning bid chosen in October, potentially allowing for some of the early utility work to begin this fall so it’s less disruptive to area businesses.
The city’s estimated share of the costs would be $800,000. Upgrades to the water mains and sewer pipes will be paid for by Bangor Water District, sewer and tax increment financing funds.
The city and council will have more projects coming down the line in their bid to connect downtown to the waterfront. Just past West Market Square, heading down Broad Street, sits Pickering Square, which poses a more complex problem for the city. It’s home to the city’s bus hub, parking garage and has been a hangout spot for transients and loiterers who have drawn complaints from local business owners and patrons. Complaints about inappropriate behavior in Pickering Square have tailed off since a local smoke shop pulled “spice” off its shelves and Bangor police started a walking beat downtown, according to city officials and councilors.
A study is underway to determine whether the city’s bus hub might move somewhere else downtown or stay put. Whatever decision is reached there would have a significant effect on what work is done in Pickering Square.
The council meets next on Monday, Aug. 26, and will decide whether to tell city staff to move ahead with requesting bids for the West Market Square project.