A vote for modern: The story of Bangor’s urban renewal

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On a warm June night in 1964, nearly 800 people crowded into the auditorium of Bangor’s 70-year-old City Hall on Hammond Street for a heart-wrenching discussion about their community’s future.
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Part II of a monthly series showing how Bangor has changed since voting to create an Urban Renewal Authority in 1958.

On a warm June night in 1964, nearly 800 people crowded into the auditorium of Bangor’s 70-year-old City Hall on Hammond Street for a heart-wrenching discussion about their community’s future.

One by one, men and women, old and young, walked to a lighted podium and, for four hours, laid out their ambitions, fears, frustrations and hopes — all tied to an “urban renewal” referendum two weeks later that, if passed, would demolish some 100 buildings covering 50 acres surrounding the heart of old Bangor at Ken-duskeag Stream, including parts of Exchange and Broad streets.

The vote was on a proposal called the Kenduskeag Stream Urban Renewal Project. It promised government-sponsored purchase of dilapidated buildings and land as well as government help with relocation expenses. It suggested — but could not promise — that new businesses, especially retail, then would move in, providing a renaissance for downtown Bangor within five years.

“I cannot agree with those who think we have exceeded our limits, those who look to the past,” said the City Council chairman, Nicholas P. Brountas. Urban renewal “is the one dynamic plan designed to cope with the problems of downtown Bangor, restoring the city to the commercial prominence it once realized.”

An Exchange Street businessman, Albert Friedman, told the crowd he had watched the city languish the previous 20 years. “Today, it is awakening to find that the world has passed it by — almost,” he said.

But Henry Segal, another downtown businessman, called the proposal “a travesty on the American principle of free enterprise and private initiative.” He opposed taking property from some to give to others. “We do not want bulldozers and boondogglers for Bangor,” he said.

Yet Albert Blanchard of the Junior Chamber of Commerce focused on the future, saying, “We as young citizens don’t want to live and work in a society governed by clipper ships.”

On June 15, the city voted 4,044 to 3,568 in favor of the plan. Downtown Bangor would be modern.

—•—

The fabric that helps explain Bangor’s decision to rebuild its downtown has many threads, but they all came together at N.H. Bragg & Sons, 74 Broad St.

Nineteenth century Bangor, at head of tide on the Penobscot River, had been the logical focal point for shipping and receiving from eastern and northern Maine. So the city was a financial and commercial center as well as a key supplier for, first, North Woods lumbering and, later, pulp and paper.

Bragg was launched in 1854 as a blacksmith shop, but 100 years later had become one of the dominant wholesalers of the region.

“We had seven salesmen out on the road in those years who would leave Monday morning and get back Friday night,” said G. Clifton Eames, 81, who worked for Bragg, including 12 years as president. “They would call on all the machine shops, the garages, the hardware stores. … We were in the auto parts business, the weld-ing supply business, heavy hardware — and by heavy hardware I mean steel and bolts.”

Close by Bragg’s brick headquarters on Broad Street near the stream were Utterback Corp., which sold everything from harnesses to Philcos; R.B. Dunning’s plumbing and electrical supplies; Bangor Egg Co. — which was actually a beer distributor — and Arthur Chapin Co. and Milliken-Tomlinson Co., both wholesale grocers. Across Kenduskeag Stream were other old-line firms, such as Snow & Nealley Co., and all around them were smaller businesses — a barber supplier, cold storage provider, filling stations, cafes, hotels and shoe repair shops.

By the 1960s, trucks servicing these companies were backing up and loading or unloading on downtown streets; some of the old buildings on Broad and Exchange were considered eyesores. Even though some wholesalers had already relocated to newly opened industrial parks on the city’s outskirts, much of downtown Bangor remained what it had been since Main Street was plotted in 1834: a working town.

—•—

City voters had approved creation of an Urban Renewal Authority in 1958, which promptly set to work planning ways to tackle what urban planners of the day considered “blight”: substandard housing, congestion and the “mixed use” of neighborhoods for living, retailing and wholesaling.

So under the leadership of an aggressive city manager, the city and its Urban Renewal Authority began preparing plans to remake Bangor on multiple fronts:

• It hired a consultant in February 1960 to start designing what became known as the Stillwater Park housing project, between Stillwater and Mount Hope avenues. The authority acquired the properties, forcing some residents to move, tore down most of the properties, then built new housing that was sold to new owners.

• It put out to referendum and passed a $1.5 million project to narrow Kenduskeag Stream from 250 feet to 80 feet between Exchange and Broad streets. The goal was not flood control but primarily to add parking along the water.

• It hired a consultant in November 1961 to prepare plans for a project reshaping the downtown mix of wholesalers, services and retailers.

With hindsight, two other projects that occurred in the same few months had considerable bearing on Bangor’s move to be modern:

• The city’s first shopping center, on Broadway, two miles from downtown, was open for business by 1961. A consultant hired by the Urban Renewal Authority in 1962 reported that he was “particularly interested to note on a Monday night, which would normally be a slow night, that between 8 and 9 o’clock, cars were entering the [shopping center] parking lot at the rate of 240 per hour, and the parking lot was 20 percent to 25 percent full. In such a one-hour stop, many retail dollars are spent at the shopping center that otherwise might have been spent downtown — IF” the downtown had been a stronger lure, the consultant’s report said.

• And in September 1960, the Maine Central Railroad decided to halt passenger rail service to Bangor, leading to sale of its Union Station near the convergence of Kenduskeag Stream and the Penobscot River. By the fall of 1961, the railroad station had been demolished, leaving only a nearby rail car shed. Destruction of the station left a dramatic point along the river empty — until the land wound up in the downtown urban renewal district and a shopping strip was constructed.

—•—

By 1962 and 1963, Bangor’s Urban Renewal Authority and its consultants were blocking out a way to shape a new look for a 19th century city trying to cope with the 20th century.

The downtown plan was to work along lines similar to the Stillwater Park housing plan: Specific buildings would be purchased and sometimes demolished by the Urban Renewal Authority, which would acquire title to the property. Then the parcel would be sold off to new buyers. Old Bangor would give way to modern Bangor.

Pulling off such a large-scale project posed an inherent dilemma, said Mike Pullen, a principal with the Bangor design firm WBRC Architects/Engineers. “There are cities all over the world that mix old and new and do it successfully. In this case … urban renewal was a bit more of a wholesale program,” Pullen said.

“I think there was a certain persuasion … that urban renewal had a system in place, that they sold a bill of goods sometimes to communities. And part of that sale was the idea that what you had, being old, was somehow decrepit and didn’t serve your needs anymore — and that we needed a fresh, new, wholesale way of intro-ducing business to the core of our city.

“They weren’t saying that just to Bangor. They were saying that to Every City USA,” Pullen said.

In order for the Urban Renewal Authority to proceed with its downtown plans, it needed to present the plan to voters. So the June 1964 referendum was set.

To make its case, the authority prepared a glossy brochure that stressed a decline in property values. It said properties in the proposed urban renewal district constituted 14.7 percent of the city’s total valuation in 1953, but just 8.6 percent by 1963.

For Clif Eames, whose N.H. Bragg & Sons became a leader of the opposition to the project, the real motive for the downtown project was less about property values and more about shifting wholesalers away from downtown.

Ed McKeon, 80, who covered the 1964 referendum for the Bangor Daily News, said the opposition “was not a large, solid bloc” but was vocal nonetheless, campaigning with advertisements and letters to the editor.

McKeon said a “potpourri of uses” for a downtown seemed economically unfashionable at the time.

So by trying to emphasize retail, not wholesaling, planners were promoting “a different kind of thinking.”

“All these ideas made sense — except you were disrupting a lot of lives,” said McKeon, who later became Bangor’s economic development director.

In the days before Bangor’s June 15, 1964, vote, McKeon interviewed downtown business owners, including Hassell Norris, 60, proprietor of a small Pickering Square printing shop.

“Do I start over again?” Norris asked in a BDN news story at the time. “They are supposed to relocate us, but where? This is a good location.”

Despite the emotion on both sides surrounding the June referendum, opponents and proponents of downtown urban renewal issued a joint statement the morning after the vote, saying it was their desire “to unify civic efforts toward the common goal of improvement of our city.”

—•—

Winning the vote did not mean the Urban Renewal Authority could immediately start work on the project. With the federal government paying for much of it, the project had to be approved, stage by stage. And approvals took months.

Just five months after the June 1964 referendum, Bangor’s city manager, Joseph R. Coupal Jr., and a new City Council chairman, John Conti, drove out to Dow Air Force Base for a meeting with the commander of the 2,000-acre Strategic Air Command base. They were unprepared for the commander’s stunning news that day: The Air Force would transfer many of Dow’s functions to other installations and Dow was among 95 military installations that would be closed in four years, by 1968.

Nearly 800 base personnel worked in the Bangor region, “but when you had several thousand Air Force people contributing in very many ways … that was a tremendous impact — that was the impact — on the day-to-day business that those people created,” McKeon said.

Fresh from winning city support for a major remaking of Bangor’s downtown, Coupal had to simultaneously launch a city government campaign to assess Bangor’s options for a very different kind of urban renewal on what he called in a memo at the time “this $100 million” property.

By 1965 the city had completed a study concluding that “part of the base could be run as a city-owned airport on a break-even basis if the Air National Guard maintained the runways and the lighting system.”

But progress on the newly approved urban renewal project downtown would move at a much, much slower pace.

Clif Eames’ N.H. Bragg would wind up moving to the city’s outskirts, but not until 1967. And a long season of wrecking balls and empty lots downtown would ensue, lasting well into the 1970s. The last urban renewal lot downtown has only recently been claimed — by the state — for its new Penobscot Valley Judicial Center on Exchange Street.

“In one sense, it was too much — more than the city could handle in terms of making viable use of all the property that was made available,” Eames said. “But overall, and I guess I’m biased, I can’t picture what Bangor would be like if it hadn’t happened.”

tmccord@bangordailynews.net

990-8124

Next: The pain of dislocation.



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