BANGOR, Maine — City councilors had their first look at plans for the proposed overhaul of downtown Bangor’s historic Pickering Square during a meeting Tuesday night.
The city’s development and engineering staff outlined a concept plan that involves rerouting the city’s buses, planting more grass and trees, removing the fountain and updating the overall look of the brick plaza.
Last year, the city completed a major, $975,000 update of neighboring West Market Square, and the city wants that new look to stretch down Broad Street.
“Pickering Square is more challenging,” Tanya Emery, Bangor’s economic development director, told the city’s Business and Economic Development Committee during the meeting.
The plan includes significant changes to the city’s parking garage. First, the entrance would be moved toward the middle of the structure, near Water Street. This change would allow the city to close off the road that passes in front of the garage.
The city’s buses would still be stationed at the parking garage, but drivers would pick up, drop off and transfer passengers behind the garage, rather than queuing between the garage and square as they do now. Buses would pass through the garage using the existing opening that leads to the Kenduskeag Stream, take on passengers in the parking area behind the garage, then drive onto Washington Street to continue their routes.
Emery said that change is meant to separate the uses of the space and prevent buses, pedestrians and cars trying to get into the parking garage from crossing paths in the congested area during busy times of day.
“We really wanted to find a way to separate those things to make it a safer and more functional space,” she said.
The parking garage office would be moved to the garage’s new entrance, and new public restrooms would be built.
With the reduced traffic resulting from moving the buses and the parking garage entrance, the city would expand the square, lay down grass and plantings, build new walking paths, install new lighting and tear out the old fountain, among other changes. The sidewalks connecting West Market Square to Pickering Square also would be improved.
An awning could be installed over a portion of the garage to make it look more inviting, and food trucks or other vendors could be given the option of setting up shop there, Emery said.
Exactly what changes happen and when they happen will depend on the level of support from councilors, and how much money the city is able to allocate to improvements over the next couple years. City officials are in the midst of crafting the budget for the next fiscal year.
Councilors expressed support of the goals and early concepts of the plan during Tuesday’s meeting, but many more details have to be worked out before they approve moving forward with any significant changes. Several public meetings are likely to be scheduled as the city works to come up with a solid proposal, so plans could evolve.
Emery said it’s likely the bulk of the work would wait until 2017, but the city could check some small items off the list this year, such as removing the fountain.
Historically, Pickering Square was one of several open areas in the downtown where merchants gathered and set up wagons and stalls to sell their wares — from slabs of beef to jewelry.
George Pickering, for whom the square was later named, was among Bangor’s most prolific merchants and developers for the better part of the 19th Century. Born in 1799, he started building blocks of wood-frame structures in the area between Main Street and the Kenduskeag Stream in his mid-20s, according to Deborah Thompson, who wrote a book about Bangor’s architectural history including the period when Pickering was most active.
Later, when his career was further along, he rebuilt those structures with brick and spread his work into other parts of the city. He served as Bangor’s mayor for two years in the 1850s, and he was vice president of Bangor Theological Seminary.
Many of Pickering’s projects stood near the square that would later carry his name, including the iconic curved building in the former circular block that housed Merchant’s Bank and is now home to Evenrood’s restaurant. He continued building almost until his death in 1876. One of his last major projects was the building at 105 Main St., currently home to Bangor Window Shade and Drapery, which was completed in 1871.
Relatively few of the buildings Pickering built survive today. Some burned in fires, others were destroyed during the city’s Urban Renewal efforts in the 1960s, when the city demolished most of the historic structures along the Kenduskeag Stream.
Before urban renewal, the area around Pickering Square was bustling with activity and business, according to city historian Richard Shaw, 63. The square was flanked by bars, lunch counters, grocery stores, fish stalls and other businesses.
“On a hot day, it had real ambiance,” Shaw said of the square in his youth.
After all those buildings came down, “it became a little nondescript,” Shaw said. The area built up slowly with the addition of KeyBank, One Merchants Plaza and the parking garage, but it was largely left open for parking and open space.
It also is unclear what the renovations might mean for a quirky Pickering Square phenomenon. If a person stands in the center of the square, where the brickwork meets at a central point, and claps their hands, the echo returns as a “squeaking” noise.
Emery acknowledged the squeak during Tuesday’s meeting and said the city hoped not to eliminate the sound with these renovations, but she wasn’t sure if it could be avoided.
Follow Nick McCrea at @nmccrea213.