The group credited with revitalizing several Bangor neighborhoods and accused of destroying much of downtown’s historic charm was scheduled to meet for the first time in 25 years Wednesday to begin the process of disbanding. However, only one of its two current members showed.
The Urban Renewal Authority, which was created nearly 60 years ago and wrote the plan to modernize the city by demolishing 100 buildings on 50 acres along the Kenduskeag Stream, has been dormant since 1991, despite remaining a functional city board with appointed members.
The group was formed in 1958 after a citywide vote and fierce debate. But there were no picket signs or angry merchants at Wednesday night’s scheduled meeting — just City Solicitor Norm Heitmann and former City Councilor Gerry Palmer Jr., one of the two members currently appointed to the five-member authority.
The City Council needs to appoint at least one other member to the authority, and all three will need to meet again to make a quorum to officially recommend disbanding. Then, that recommendation will need to go before the council for a formal vote.
“There’s really nothing for the [authority] to do,” Heitmann said, so it’s time to eliminate it and take it off the books.
The authority targeted “slum housing, and there was plenty of it in Bangor when the authority was created,” recalled Palmer, who was appointed to the authority earlier this year. “We also knocked down a lot of good buildings, and many of the citizens lament those buildings. I’m one of them.”
Bangor’s urban renewal efforts were part of a federally funded national movement that allowed the authority to take blighted buildings and areas by eminent domain and demolish them for redevelopment.
The last time the authority met was in 1991. But with nothing left to do, Palmer and Heitmann held its first advertised public meeting since on Wednesday to discuss the steps needed to bring the authority to its official end.
The two huddled up in a small room on the third floor of Bangor City Hall — itself a product of the urban renewal movement. During the meeting that lasted about 10 minutes, Palmer reminisced about seeing the final movie screening at the old Bijou Theater on Exchange Street, which was torn down in 1973.
“It was a place where a lot of us spent a lot of time as kids,” Palmer said. “My wife and I went to the last show ever of the Bijou Theater. She and I were the only two people in the balcony. Then the next week it was under the wrecking ball and it was torn down.”
There has been little need for the authority since 1974, when federal funding for such urban renewal projects ended, said Heitmann. Since then, changes to federal law and the creation of the Community Development Block Grant program allowed city officials to carry out the same functions as the authority, he said.
In 1987, the city purchased the remaining properties still owned by the authority, the city solicitor said.
The group has since remained intact in case deed restrictions it placed on properties interfered with development projects or created title problems that needed to be addressed, Heitmann said.
But it hasn’t dealt with any such issues since 1991, when it met and removed its title on a strip of land on Birch Street, according to minutes from that meeting. The group previously met to resolve other minor issues in 1986 and 1979.
Despite Palmer being the only member present at Wednesday’s scheduled meeting, he said he did not expect any pushback to the disbandment plan.
“I think it’s definitely going to get disbanded,” Palmer said. “Its time has come and gone, and I think it’s time it was put to bed. That’s my view. I can’t speak for everybody, but I would be surprised if someone had a different view.”
Roland McDonald, the other current member of the authority who was not present at the meeting, did not answer several phone calls seeking comment Thursday and Friday.
The authority’s possible disbandment comes amid a resurgence in downtown commercial activity, which was once decimated by the urban renewal movement.
“There was a very powerful sense of loss. But that was then, and I think we may be moving to a very different era,” said Tom McCord, a history instructor at the University of Maine at Augusta who studied urban renewal in downtown Bangor, and a former BDN employee.
Urban renewal turned a “blighted” section of Bangor between Stillwater Avenue and Mount Hope Avenue into a thriving neighborhood by knocking down homes and building Stillwater Park, McCord said.
The movement also removed many other buildings throughout the city that were beyond repair, he said.
The problem, McCord said, was the Urban Renewal Authority received federal funds to knock down the buildings, but developers struggled to find the funding to build new structures in their place. So several prominent lots on the east and west sides of the stream where historic buildings once stood were left vacant for years in the 1970s and ’80s.
“It became a symbol for great frustration and sometimes anger because the federal urban renewal program essentially said, ‘You can take the money, acquire property, take the land, demolish the structures — but then you need to wait for [new development] to come,’” McCord said.
Buildings were finally erected at those sites. Large office buildings were occupied by banks, including 1 Merchants Plaza, where the BDN is located; a parking garage; the Penobscot Judicial Center; and Pickering Square, which may soon undergo renovations. But other planned buildings such as a new hotel and a convention center never came to fruition.
“In general, a lot of the big downtown projects envisioned did not occur,” McCord said. “I think in Bangor’s case, it learned that simply demolishing isn’t the simple solution to the perceived problem.”