SOUTH PORTLAND – When the Casco Bay Bridge was stuck in the upright position for a couple of hours last Tuesday, Brian Eng, a resident of Portland’s West End, heard from friends concerned about his parents, who recently moved into the 23-unit condo building at 72 Ocean St. they bought last August.
“I said, ‘Well, I don’t think they really care. They can get everything they want over there,’” he said.
That view of South Portland’s historic Knightville-Mill Creek shopping district, home to Maine’s first strip mall, was the predominant theme at a public visioning session held May 9 at the city’s planning and development office. About 25 people gathered to view renderings prepared by SMRT Architects and Engineers of Portland of what the area could like in 20 years. Time and again during the meeting, residents spoke of the area as one that doesn’t get the respect it deserves as a vital, self-sufficient community that’s both walkable in its own right and an easy walk to other amenities, from Bug Light Park to Portland’s Old Port.
Those who attended the session seemed to agree that Knightville in particular, and by extension the Mill Creek shopping area, is poised to pop in the near future.
“Coming from the land of skyscrapers, I look out of my balcony and I see water on one side and what looks, to me, to be a very rural area on the other,” said Kenneth Eng, who came to Maine from Manhattan.
“Honestly, I don’t know why the area hasn’t been developed already,” he said.
That comment drew lots of laughter, but city staffers say they are less concerned with why development hasn’t happened as they are with planning for its inevitable arrival in the 31.6-acre Mill Creek shopping district, made up of of 33 lots bounded by the Casco Bay Bridge, the Greenbelt Trail, Ocean Street and E Street.
In a Greater Portland transportation study, Charlie Colgan, a Maine School of Public Service professor who led the state’s Consensus Economic Forecasting Group from 1992 to 2011, predicts a 13.5 percent spike in private, non-farm employment in southern Maine through 2035. That translates to between 3,000 and 3,500 new jobs in South Portland, largely in health care and social assistance (seen growing 74.4 percent) and educational services (up 61.4 percent). That job growth is expected to bring up to 2,400 new households to South Portland, already Maine’s fourth-largest city.
Finding a way to manage that surge is vital to South Portland, officials say, given its interest in regulating an orderly transformation of the city while also encouraging the new construction – and thus new taxable property – needed to fund increasing budgets and a host of public services.
Trying to figure out how to manage that growth has been the charge of Sustain Southern Maine, a partnership of 41 municipalities, schools, nonprofits and planning agencies led by the Greater Portland Council of Governments.
In October 2010, GPCOG won a $1.6 million Sustainable Communities Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Under the motto, “By choice not by chance,” Sustain Southern Maine has been busy ever since trying to help a swath of the state from Brunswick to Kittery find ways to “absorb significant shares of most kinds of growth” through the next 25 years.
That effort has led to the selection of 10 pilot projects, including South Portland’s Mill Creek area, that Bangor-based planning consultant Evan Richert calls “learning laboratories.”
The initial idea of the Sustain Southern Maine study was to target 10 percent of the growth South Portland is expected to experience by 2035 into the Mill Creek area, but encouraging residential development in what is now a sea of paved parking areas interrupted by islands of retail shops.
However, that meant finding a way to accommodate up to 175,000 square feet of additional commercial space, as well as 240 housing units. Following a meeting with area business owners in December, and a brainstorming session with residents and others in January, that growth target proved untenable, said Richert at last week’s unveiling of the plans created from those earlier sessions.
“We want to push the envelope in every case, but we also want to be constrained by the market and other realities,” said Richert. “We don’t want this to be pie-in-the-sky. We want it to be something that will be useful to the property owners and tenants of these districts, and to the communities.”
In addition to that plan, which seems a nonstarter, two other proposals were presented for public comment. One, described as a view 20 years out, accommodates 49,000 square feet of new commercial space, creating nearly 100 jobs, along with 173 new residential units. Another, said to be “more immediate,” is a “paint and plants” proposal. It includes restriping Waterman Drive to add about 50 on-street parking spots, breaking up the Shaw’s parking lot with greenery, and “tunneling” through Mill Creek shopping center to better lead people to stores from the Greenbelt Trail.
“South Portland’s role now will be to try and work on some of the details on how this could move forward,” said Carol Morris, communications manager for the Sustain Southern Maine projects. “But, overall, I think everyone who has been at our meetings has been very positive around the idea of Mill Creek becoming more of a residential center.
“That’s been true in all of the Sustain Southern Maine pilot areas,” said Morris. “Everyone seems to agree the way to get things to grow is to get people there.”
City Planner Tex Haeuser said he will now use the public workshop comments and the resulting illustrations to help guide implementation of South Portland’s newly adopted comprehensive plan, which calls on Mill Creek to become a “vibrant, mixed-use commercial center.”
“This is about trying to realize a little bit more of the potential of Mill Creek, which has a lot of very good things going for it, and very good things happening now, but we realize more can be done,” he said.
Alongside the city’s new comprehensive plan implementation committee – which is still taking applications and expects to name its nine members soon – Haeuser says he expects to introduce zoning changes to the City Council during the next year that will permit greater residential development of buildings, including taller structures, if not actual high-rises. Haeuser said time may also bring to South Portland a relatively new trend among urban planners, in which the Planning Board concerns itself more with the design elements of a building and less with its intended use.
Haeuser said he also expects a tax increment financing district may be created to help spur development.
“We just hope that all of this will lead to the general public spending more time thinking about how they want their town to grow, or even not grow,” said Morris.