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For decades, the stores and restaurants along Stillwater Avenue and Hogan Road have served as one of Bangor’s main economic engines, bringing jobs, tax revenue and enough retail destinations to eat up a shopper’s whole afternoon.
But the cracks in that model have been emerging in recent years. A number of stores have left the Bangor Mall as online shopping has grown more popular, for example, leading the property to sell at well below its assessed value last year.
More recently, the coronavirus pandemic has forced many chain stores to either close their doors for months or adapt by offering curbside pickup. The impact is already being felt by large department stores such as JC Penney, which plans to close 30 percent of its 846 locations over the next two years — but which so far has not included the Bangor Mall store in its closure plans.
Because of that one-two punch to the retail sector, Bangor officials are now considering how the city’s traditional shopping district can continue to serve as an economic driver even as the demand for in-person shopping shrinks.
Just eight years ago, the city designated the Stillwater Avenue corridor as a retail center in its latest comprehensive plan. But city councilors are now weighing whether to adjust the corridor’s zoning rules to allow for a wider array of uses, including light manufacturing, and also try to encourage developments that would make the heavily trafficked area more accessible to pedestrians, cyclists and public transit users.
In a proposal to create the new zoning district, Bangor Planning Officer Anne Krieg said that the city has received several inquiries from non-retail businesses that are eyeing vacant properties along the corridor.
“Retail has radically changed since the 2012 Comprehensive Plan. Retail has even changed in the current year, given the consumer response to the pandemic,” Krieg said in the proposal.
She went on: “Demand for light industrial and manufacturing has risen drastically over the last few years in the region. This area is ideal for light industry and manufacturing; there are two I-95 exits in the subject area. The area also contains large-scale buildings that may be repurposed, or may easily be redeveloped.”
Councilors briefly discussed the proposal during a committee meeting earlier this week. It is now expected to go to the full council next week for a first reading.
Under the proposal, the city would create more flexibility in the types of businesses that can go into the new district, but also create regulations for the placement, landscaping and structure of future buildings to ensure that they are closer to the street and more conducive to pedestrian use, rather than set way back behind sprawling parking lots.
When presenting the proposal to councilors, Krieg said the changes would not happen suddenly, but as new developments are considered by the city over the coming decade or more.
“You can have some good, sound development in that area but give some opportunities for job creation,” she said. “It’s not unlike what you see happening downtown. Lots of people work downtown. There’s restaurants downtown. There’s shopping downtown. That’s your core, and so it kind of allows the same kind of thing to happen out in the Stillwater-Hogan area, so that people go to work and have a job there. After work, they might go to BJ’s or go out to dinner, and it’s all right there.”
Councilor Sarah Nichols said that she was encouraged by the focus on design in Krieg’s proposal, especially given that the current array of big chain stores now situated along the corridor is not so visually pleasing.
“To me, it’s never really fit with the rest of Bangor. It’s this island of boxes and, honestly, really ugly buildings,” Nichols said. Pointing to the example of Bangor Beer Company as the rare business in the Bangor Mall area where it is pleasant to sit outside, she said that it would be nice “to make it more inviting for those sorts of activities of being outside and enjoying it like you can right downtown.”
Nichols also said the roads in that corridor are wide enough to allow for “more cycling and those kinds of things we always talked about.”
A new paved trail has been built between Stillwater Avenue and Sylvan Road, which allows pedestrians and bicyclists to avoid the most heavily trafficked sections of Hogan Road and Stillwater Avenue. (Linda Coan O’Kresik | BDN)
In one way, the city is already working to make that area more friendly to pedestrians and cyclists: it has nearly completed the construction of a half-mile paved path that starts on the western edge of Eastern Maine Community College and wraps around the off-ramp of Interstate 95 before depositing riders and walkers on Stillwater Avenue.
Councilor Dan Tremble said he generally supports the new design standards in Krieg’s proposal, but expressed concern about allowing industrial businesses to open too close to the road. He suggested that they be required to sit 300 feet from the road.
Among the types of businesses that would be allowed to open in the new zoning district with conditional approval from the city’s planning board are bars and lounges, gas stations, cell phone towers and manufacturing facilities that do not emit “noxious or injurious” byproducts such as smoke and odors.
The proposal also includes additional restrictions for what uses would be allowed near the Penjajawoc Marsh.
The new district would mostly follow Stillwater Avenue from the Interstate 95 overpass just below the current shopping area to just north of Hogan Road. It would include many of the other side roads throughout the shopping district and a small section of Hogan Road.