WESTBROOK – It has been 30 years since the last building – the Scates building – was torn down as part of the federal urban renewal program, which hit its heyday in the 1970s.
The program offered free government funds and a promise: to transform America’s aging traditional downtowns into modern, thriving hubs of commerce, community and character.
Three decades later, Westbrook is still waiting for delivery on that promise. While the downtown area remains active, many of the smaller, local retail shops that are the hallmark of the American downtown are gone. A changing economic landscape surely had a role. But experts and city officials all agree that a well-intentioned but poorly executed federal program must share some of the blame.
The concept of “urban renewal” really took off as a full-fledged government program in the years following World War II, according to Earle G. Shettleworth Jr., director and state historic preservation officer at the Maine Historic Preservation Commission.
“There was a lot of concern about revitalizing the downtowns,” he said.
The economic hardships of the Great Depression, he said, coupled with the distraction of a major global armed conflict, meant that many buildings in American communities went without maintenance, and were literally beginning to fall apart.
On top of that, Shettleworth said, the advent of the superhighway system was prompting a growing love for the automobile, and shopping centers and malls, like the Pine Tree Shopping Center, erected in 1960 at 1100 Brighton Ave. in Portland, near the Westbrook line, were changing how Americans shopped.
“(That) really began to siphon business from the old downtown,” Shettleworth said.
Urban renewal, Shettleworth said, was promoted as a rescuer to downtown areas. Shettleworth said the program took the form of individual projects, making an exact tally of how much the government spent on the nationwide movement virtually impossible to get, but he estimated it must have cost millions, even in those days.
The funds were doled out as grants to communities for restructuring their downtowns, and many urban areas in Maine, such as Portland, Bangor, Waterville and Westbrook, took full advantage.
But “restructuring” meant demolition of many of the buildings in downtown Westbrook, starting in 1974. An exact count is not available, but according to documents on file at the Warren Memorial Library Local History Room, the focus appeared to be on an area along Main Street between Rochester and Saco streets.
A survey of a 1974 street directory for the city shows a multitude of businesses, many of which are recognizable as the kind of local stores one would expect to find in a downtown area: drugstores, clothing shops for men and women, barber shops, a bakery, a jewelry store, and several furniture stores. Many of these businesses were clustered together, making it easy for shoppers to walk from one store to the next.
Ray LeTarte, 90, of Gorham, managed one of those stores, a ski shop at 819 Main St. His brother, the building’s owner, ran a dry cleaning store next door.
LeTarte said the building was strong, calling it “one of the best buildings in town,” but men representing the government’s urban renewal office, he said, came to him one day in the mid-1970s and gave him and his brother a year to vacate the premises. The LeTartes, he recalled, had no say in the matter.
“I wanted to remain, because I had such a good business in the ski shop, but they forced me out,” he said.
LeTarte acknowledged that not everything on Main Street was in mint condition, and the library’s records back that up. One of the first buildings to go was the Star Movie Theatre, which could seat 1,000 people, and was open and showing movies in a photograph dated 1941.
Multiple theater companies owned the building until New England Theatres Inc. sold it to John R. Lewis in 1965, according to the library records. There is no record of any other theater company doing business there, and a photo from 1974 clearly shows the boarded-up movie house was no longer in business.
Other photographs taken of the downtown area at the time show clear signs of damage and neglect to some of the buildings. Many of the exact locations of some of the photos are not recorded, but they show missing plaster on walls, piles of trash in rooms, and crumbling foundations on some buildings.
City Planner Molly Just said some of the buildings clearly needed to come down, but the desire to raze and rebuild may have overwhelmed common sense in some places.
“They took a hatchet when they should have taken a scalpel,” she said. “They took down a lot of fabulous buildings that they shouldn’t have.”
Mike Sanphy, president of the Westbrook Historical Society, said there was a huge push to redesign the city’s downtown area from the foundations up.
“I think the mindset here was, demolish the old buildings and start over,” he said.
Sanphy said he didn’t blame the government, however, which he said acted in the interest of helping communities improve financially.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” he said. “They wanted to rehabilitate downtown.”
Just agreed that the program was not a bad idea, merely poorly implemented. Federal projects like urban renewal would never take place today without some sort of preliminary study of the area, she said, with a more careful plan taking into account preservation of the local landscape.
“At that time, they were just kind of clear-cutting, and it wasn’t just Westbrook,” she said.
Sanphy said the last building to be torn down was the Scates building in 1981. According to the library files, the building was constructed in 1903 by John Clark Scates, who ran it as a drug store for many years. After that, the building served a multitude of purposes, including housing City Hall.
Today, Sanphy said, nothing exists of the building but a parking lot behind CVS Pharmacy. The fate of the Scates building, he said, is emblematic of much of the rest of the old downtown.
“For all intents and purposes, everything old is gone,” he said.
New buildings went up nearby, including two complexes intended to house small stores framing a walking mall area known as Westbrook Common, dominated by a sculpture erected in honor of crooner and Westbrook native Rudy Vallee.
A survey of the same area of Main Street in the 2009 Polk City Directory, the most recent one available, also shows a large number of businesses, including hair salons, coffee shops, and small to medium-sized restaurants, but they are more spread out. There is virtually no small retail, and many of the businesses include insurance companies, law and real estate offices.
Part of the problem, Sanphy said, is that owners of the old businesses couldn’t handle the higher rents that came with the new construction.
“They couldn’t apparently afford to move into the new buildings,” he said.
That was true for LeTarte, who said he tried to move his business elsewhere, but he couldn’t make it work.
“Things weren’t going too good for me, so I sold out,” he said.
He wound up working for a few years in another ski shop before becoming a toll collector for the Maine Turnpike Authority, collecting change from drivers coming off Exit 8 until he retired in 1996.
Today, areas like Westbrook Common show no sign of the revitalization promised by urban renewal. The sculpture doubled as a water fountain that stopped working years ago. Some of the storefronts are empty, and most of the others are occupied by offices, not retail stores.
Just said the downtown area is a shadow of what it once was, calling Westbrook Common itself “no man’s land.”
“You’ve now got a fractured downtown,” she said.
And Sanphy, when asked if he thought urban renewal was responsible, said, “To a point, yes, it is. I think it is.”
Not all the buildings have been lost, however. The office building at 840 Main St., the home of the American Journal, is still standing. The Walker Memorial Library, built in the 19th century, also remains, and is the subject of a major renovation designed to preserve the building for years to come. The old high school, which was built in 1886 for $20,616, and converted to a junior high school before closing in 1976, has been taken over by Westbrook Housing, which has converted it into Presumpscot Commons, a senior housing complex.
And Westbrook Housing also has recently taken over the former Unitarian Universalist Church at 719 Main St., which was built in 1888. The authority plans to turn it into a cultural center.
Just said the city has not turned its back on its downtown, though the recession has made many new initiatives difficult at best, as evidenced by a recent effort to revamp Westbrook Common – rejected when the city couldn’t come up with matching grant funds.
Another attempt came in 2009 with the Westbrook Development Collaborative, a group of local businesses and associations hand-picked by then-Mayor Bruce Chuluda to look at the city’s long-term development, which recommended building a new office complex on property known as Saccarappa Park. That project still has not happened.
But, Just said, there are other improvements in the area that are helping, such as the construction on William Clarke Drive, which will make it easier for people to walk across it to reach the downtown. The recent acquisition of the Dana Warp Mill by Alexsandar (Sasa) Cook, who has plans to further develop the commercial space, also will lead to more people walking and doing business in Westbrook’s downtown, Just said.
“We now know how to attract people from inside buildings to outside,” she said.
Shettleworth said it’s certainly possible that small retail shops will make a comeback. While they gave way to chain stores, and eventually “big-box” retailers, there is evidence that the recession might be forcing the economy to think smaller in the future, not bigger. As an example, Shettleworth cited the recent announcement by the bookselling giant Borders that it would be going out of business.
But it will take time. In cities like Portland and Bangor, he said, signs of commercial rebirth didn’t begin to show until the 1990s. In a smaller community like Westbrook, he said, it’s likely it will take longer, as opposed to the instant change promised by urban renewal.
“The promise was it would be like the waving of a magic wand,” he said.
But if the retail trends continue the way he expects, Shettleworth said, recovery is possible for Westbrook’s downtown. When asked if he felt small businesses had a good chance of returning to downtown Westbrook, Shettleworth said, “I think so.”