WATERVILLE — A second wave of renovations could be coming to the Hathaway Creative Center, and the news has spurred renewed discussion about downtown traffic patterns — whether to build a roundabout at the intersection of Spring and Front streets and create two-way traffic on Front and Main streets.
Last week, Paul Boghossian, owner of the Hathaway, announced he has gained full ownership of two buildings at the Water Street site — the former Marden’s and Central Maine Power Co. buildings — from business partner Tom Neimann. Boghossian wouldn’t discuss details of the transaction, but he said he recently gained full ownership of the property by foreclosing on Neimann’s shares.
A reporter’s attempts to reach Neimann were unsuccessful.
Plans for the two buildings, which Boghossian bought in 2006 for about $700,000, still are taking shape. Boghossian is looking for a mix of private investment and bank loans for an estimated $20 million renovation project. He envisions the buildings will be similar to the Hathaway building, which was renovated to include office, retail and residential space. The redevelopment also could include a hotel and conference center, he said. Exterior work on the former Marden’s building could begin within a year.
“It can’t happen soon enough,” he said. “The condition of the Marden’s building is a profound embarrassment to me.
“It would be different if it was a building that was tucked away, but everybody drives by it.”
That traffic, which courses steadily below its windows and across the Ticonic Bridge, also is a concern for Boghossian. The intersection of Water, Spring and Front streets creates a block between his projects and the city’s retail center and stymies the flow of pedestrian traffic, he said. The subject has been a frequent refrain for the developer. He also has appealed frequently for two-way traffic on Main Street.
“I feel a little like (former Soviet leader) Nikita Krushchev banging my shoe on the table, saying, ‘We gotta have two-way traffic on Main Street,’” Boghossian said during a special City Council meeting Tuesday. “We’ve got to really think about how friendly downtown is for pedestrian activity.”
Two-way traffic and a rotary at the intersection have been supported by the city over the years.
In 2009, a publicly funded study concluded that a rotary would improve pedestrian access between downtown and the South End and increase green space and that it might aid the flow of traffic.
In 2007, then-mayor Paul LePage voiced support for two-way traffic after he attended the Northeast Mayors Institute of City Design conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., according to previous reports. Two-way traffic would reclaim Waterville as a city, making it a community that caters to those who shop and work downtown rather than a place designed to accommodate through traffic, LePage said at the time.
“(What) you have to do is decide whether you want to be a suburb or a city,” he said. “If you want to be a city, you have to invite some congestion and learn to deal with it.”
Both ideas, which could cost more than $1 million, would restore traffic patterns to Waterville that disappeared more than half a century ago.
Back to the future?
Before the 1960s, traffic on Main Street ran both directions, to the chagrin of some.
“It was gridlock,” said Willard Arnold, 85. “Downtown was the shopping center for all of central Maine, and the street being two-way screwed the whole thing up.”
Arnold, whose family owned the now-defunct hardware store W.B. Arnold Co. on Main Street, was a supporter of one-way traffic. In his role as chairman of the merchants’ division of the Mid-Maine Chamber of Commerce, Arnold helped organize a meeting on the subject in the mid-1950s.
He thought one-way traffic was a great idea.
“However, most of the merchants were opposed. They were really up in arms about it,” he said.
Nonetheless, the City Council approved the idea, and the flow of traffic was altered.
W.B. Arnold Co. went out of business a few years later, in 1962, which Arnold attributes to competition from larger retailers that sprouted up in plazas on the city’s outskirts.
Changing Main Street back to the way it was would be a mistake, Arnold said.
“I’d still be very much against it,” he said. “I can’t imagine it being two-way now. There’s so much more traffic now than there used to be.”
Whether Arnold’s assessment is correct is anybody’s guess at this point. City Manager Michael Roy said a comprehensive traffic study could help end speculation, but it also would be costly — up to $80,000 — and there’s no telling how much it might cost the city to change back.
“Before we spend that kind of money, I think we should do a survey of Main Street businesses to see what the level of support is for the two-way traffic,” he said.
Shannon Haines researched the topic in her former role as executive director of Waterville Main Street. She said the idea of two-way traffic has merit, but agrees a study is necessary.
“A lot of people feel it would be good for business for traffic to return to two-way,” she said. “It’s been done nationwide and it’s proven very successful in revitalizing downtowns, but the city can’t take that kind of step without taking the time to study how it might impact all of the other intersections.”
At least one retailer is in favor of change.
“I think it would be great,” said Zak Sclar, owner of Save-a-Lot on The Concourse. “If we had two-way traffic, it would certainly be more user-friendly for the consumer, and it would benefit all of the downtown businesses.”
During the special meeting Tuesday, Councilors Eliza Mathias and Erik Thomas spoke in favor of a study.
Time is cyclical?
During a massive urban renewal project in 1962, the city removed a rotary that connected Front, Main and Water streets and the Ticonic Bridge and replaced it with a lighted intersection.
Boghossian said Tuesday that he and the city forged an agreement several years ago that the intersection would be improved if he developed the site.
“To the city’s credit, they did fund a study, but it has kind of stopped with the study. And if we’re honest with ourselves, that intersection is awful. It’s awful for the cars. It’s awful for the people. It’s a blight. And honestly, if I’m going to spend $20 million to fix up the Marden’s and CMP buildings, we’ve got to do something about that intersection.”
The 2009 study found that a roundabout would improve the intersection, but the estimated price tag is steep — $1.6 million, Roy said. Also, the intersection, which includes U.S. Route 201, isn’t owned by the city, which could complicate any plans.
Councilor Karen Rancourt-Thomas, who represents the South End, said Tuesday she favors improving the intersection to accommodate foot traffic from Water Street to downtown, which she said could have a profound affect on residents.
“Once you change the climate of an area, everything changes. Businesses come in. People feel better about themselves,” she said.
Boghossian said linking the two areas by pedestrian crossings is key to preparing for the city’s future.
“As people get older, they want to be downtown so they can walk to stuff; and believe me, the cost of energy is moving us there so fast. You wait and see how many people want to move downtown when gas is $6 a gallon,” he said.
Since 2009, when the Hathaway Creative Center opened, about 300 people have moved in to its apartments, which, Boghossian told the council, has changed the economic outlook for downtown.
“Five years ago, I sat in this audience and I said, ‘If we have 300 people living downtown, we’ll get a grocery store.’ You know what? We have 300 people living downtown and lo and behold, we’ve got a grocery store. The services will follow the people; and if we make it attractive, the services will come and the economic development, because the jobs want to be where the people are. And increasingly, people want to walk to work.”
Sclar said the Hathaway isn’t necessarily responsible for the Save-a-Lot.
“The total marketplace is what made us decide to have a store on The Concourse. The Hathaway certainly didn’t hurt, but it wasn’t a deciding factor,” he said.
Nonetheless, Sclar welcomes Boghossian’s plans to add more apartments to downtown.
“It certainly sounds good,” he said. “I would be enthused.”
Meanwhile, Boghossian said there’s more in store for the Hathaway building. He said he’s in talks with two parties who are interested in opening a brewery pub, and with two substantial businesses that could bring 200 employees each to the complex; and he’s “very close to signing a cafe that would serve coffee, breakfast and lunch,” he said.
Ben McCanna — 861-9239