Central Maine downtowns, from the pedestrian point of view

When I worked in Bangor, I asked Evan Richert — then State Planning Office director, later Orono town planner — for a downtown tour. I wanted to see what works, and doesn’t work, in the redevelopment projects nearly every Maine city has undertaken over the past generation.

We stopped at West Market Square, the intersection of Broad and Main streets, and he pronounced it the “100 percent intersection.” When I asked what he meant, he said it was the busiest point for pedestrians.

At the peak hour of the workday, this point should have 1,000 people on foot passing by. If the number is reached, it indicates a healthy downtown. If it isn’t, downtown has a ways to go.

Back then, Bangor fell short, but today would likely make the grade. In Portland, there are several points in the Old Port, and now Congress Street, that would qualify. Lewiston is gaining, but the street grid there tends to disperse foot traffic.

Richert said something else: When evaluating downtowns, cars don’t count. They’ve been excluded from downtowns to create pedestrian malls; Burlington, Vermont, did that back when Bernie Sanders was mayor. But vehicle traffic continues in many thriving downtowns; the key is to maintain a balance between cars and those on foot.

In central Maine cities, there’s been little attention to pedestrians, and, to my mind, excessive concern about the free flow of vehicles and the attendant parking spaces that take up so much valuable space.

We forget that the Maine downtowns that charm visitors, and are again the economic drivers of communities, were built long before there were trucks and automobiles.

We still need the internal combustion engine to get around — at least until electric cars take over — but we don’t need them occupying pride of place. This message isn’t getting through to city councils, or those who attend hearings.

Some 60 years ago, the Maine Department of Transportation helped convert Waterville’s Main Street, and Augusta’s Water Street, from traditional streets to one-way, two-lane thoroughfares.

Water Street became a way for drivers to speed through downtown — and speed they do — as they head out of town. If the sightlines at Augusta’s Market Square weren’t as good as they are, pedestrians would feel imperiled just by crossing the street.

The utility of Waterville’s one-way Main Street seems less obvious, though confusing to visitors. The City Council voted last fall to pursue a $4.4 million grant that could result in restoring two-way traffic, but probably won’t, to judge from council discussion.

One councilor asked how tractor-trailers would maneuver through downtown; the answer is they shouldn’t be there during business hours. There was little discussion of pedestrians who, after they park, walk to stores, restaurants, offices, or the apartments where they live.

If any city might seem likely to grant pedestrians equal rights, it would be Hallowell, whose downtown was revived earlier and more completely than those of Waterville, Augusta or Gardiner. And Hallowell happens to have a big highway project underway to rebuild Water Street, lower the grade, and allow the city to create a new parking lot off Central Street.

Are there any pedestrian amenities in the nearly $5 million project? There are not. What Hallowell will get, along with everyone who drives through along U.S. Route 201, aka Water Street, is a flatter and faster road, and more parking, once construction is completed.

For the City Council, and most who spoke at public hearings, that’s enough. Ideas about slowing traffic to make life easier for pedestrians, such as “bump outs” to reduce pavement width, were summarily dismissed by the council’s then-subcommittee chairman, Alan Stearns, who said it was a road project, pure and simple.

Hallowell has missed a golden opportunity to do something more than build a better road. The reality is that successful 21st-century downtowns will resemble their 19th-century forbears, in terms of getting around, not those of the mid-20th century, when the car was king and downtowns were largely written off.

True, Water Street is two-way, and during peak hours, traffic backs up and moves slowly enough to protect pedestrians. But in off hours and weekends, cars speed through; I have felt, more than once, I was taking my life in my hands to cross.

Central Street could have become the Market Square of Hallowell, and, with a different political and planning direction, still could, though not soon.

Waterville has the opportunity not to make the same mistake, but only if redevelopers, and everyone who uses downtown, make their voices heard. Yes, it will be a bit more difficult to drive down Main Street — and that’s exactly the point.

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 33 years. He lives in West Gardiner, and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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