If you look at the history of commercial development in this country, you will quickly find the reason why downtowns retain their fascination, and now are finally regaining their economic vitality: Every one is different. You will never find two downtowns, even in the same state or region, that look exactly alike.

That’s because downtowns are almost never built by one developer or any single business interest. They are changed, and transformed, over many decades and even centuries.

Take a photo of a downtown street scene, and it’s almost instantly identifiable for anyone who’s been there. Contrast that with the average shopping mall, or buildings such as the new state office building on Capitol Street, which look the same as a thousand others.

Augusta’s downtown is on the verge of another transformation, one in a long series that dates back more than two centuries. The current phase began with the realization by some pioneer planners and developers that returning residential living to Water Street was the key to attracting new business investment as well.

It’s always a work in progress; just as apartment-dwellers do, businesses come and go. But the trend is upward, and the next decade will likely determine whether Augusta can maintain a successful downtown center. If Augusta’s Water Street still seems a long way from Portland, or even Hallowell, in terms of vitality, one must remember what those downtowns looked like a generation or two earlier.

That’s why it’s so important that municipal infrastructure improvements be done right. Augusta has just such a project on tap, reconstructing and — as we used to say — beautifying Commercial Street, and also restoring two-way traffic on Water Street.

The Commercial Street section is getting the lion’s share of the funding, including new street trees, cedar fencing and bike racks. That portion will cost about $1.4 million, substantially more than first estimated, because of the shortage of construction workers and, thus, the contractors willing to do the work.

The Water Street changes, far more modest, still are estimated at less than $200,000, much of it for traffic signal changes and restriping pavement. Given that modest price tag, it’s disappointing that the final specs, released in February, don’t include an adequate treatment for crosswalks.

Well-functioning downtowns maintain a balance between pedestrians and vehicles. In really big cities, pedestrians far outnumber cars, so crossings and street corners are to some degree self-regulating.

In small cities, though, drivers — and pedestrians — need visual cues to make sure traffic yields to people on foot; across the country, pedestrian deaths are rising, a sign that more must be done to ensure safety.

Those cues are best provided by crosswalks that clearly contrast with the surrounding pavement. You can see a good example at the downtown Hannaford store on Stone Street, just across the river; those crosswalks have red concrete blocks with striping along the edges. It defines pedestrian areas much better than at Shaw’s Plaza on Western Avenue, where pedestrians cross willy-nilly and hope that drivers somehow see them.

Unfortunately, the Water Street specifications contain no provisions for anything beyond the usual white lines. This is an oversight that should cause the City Council some concern.

Crosswalks aren’t easily seen by drivers, and they quickly wear off due to traffic, meaning that pedestrians don’t observe them either, with a lot of jaywalking ensuing. Most of the winter and early spring, the lines are nearly invisible, and repainting them is often delayed in preference to what are perceived as more urgent public works tasks.

One of the key advantages of two-way traffic is that it will slow down vehicle speeds, but the increase in safety — and, almost equally important, the perception of it by residents and visitors alike — will be less than it should be.

When I was a young newspaper editor, one story I found particularly hard to cover, and to get over, involved the death of a young girl who was hit by a car crossing the street just outside our newspaper office, in a poorly marked crosswalk. I always wondered if that accident could have been prevented.

Pedestrian deaths are, blessedly, still relatively rare, but they should be even rarer. It may seem a small point in a much larger project, but it’s nonetheless important — even vital.

 

Douglas Rooks has been a Maine editor, opinion writer and author for 34 years. He is the author of “Rise, Decline and Renewal: The Democratic Party in Maine,” and welcomes comment at: [email protected]

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