Siting Town Buildings
(from Maine Townsman, November 2001)
By Douglas Rooks, Freelance Writer

 

       The state has been making significant efforts to support downtowns through the location of new state offices, and earlier this year extended its anti-sprawl, or smart growth, policy to include school construction.

 

       Gov. Angus King, acting on the recommendation of the State Planning Office, signed an executive order at the outset of his second term, giving priority to building offices in contiguous urban centers. The first fruits of the new policy came in a decision for the Department of Human Services to become an anchor tenant at the Bates Mill complex in Lewiston. DHS is also occupying a new office building on Marginal Way in Portland. And the SPO itself may move downtown. It is looking at sites on Water Street in Augusta that would involve vacating the historic Guy Gannett House next to the Blaine House, though budget cutbacks may delay the move.

 

       The school policy shift may be even more significant. For years, new schools were built on outlying, “greenfields” sites, mostly because of the large acreage requirements included in guidelines for state funding. Gov. King is a long-time critic of the policy, which forced his hometown of Brunswick to build a new school a mile from town, even though most residents preferred the high school downtown.

 

       The new policy began having an impact even before the Legislature formally approved it. SAD 51 voted to build its new middle school on the existing Greeley campus in Cumberland, even though Greeley had not been on the original site list, and was only considered after an SPO representative suggested it.

 

       The state is unlikely to have any such decisive effect on the location of other municipal buildings, which, unlike schools, are usually planned and built without significant state support. But the questions of cost, centrality and convenience are very much part of siting municipal buildings, and the smart growth message is beginning to affect the local debate as well.

 

       What follows is not a comprehensive survey, but rather a series of examples of how individual municipalities approach siting decisions, displaying the thinking at work in each case and how various alternatives are weighed. It should be cautioned that the new state thinking is indeed too new to be reflected in municipal projects that have made it off the drawing board. The average time from first consideration to completion is three to five years, and in many cases is far longer.

Westbrook

       The city council voted Nov. 12 to take by eminent domain the Webber Oil Co. property at the corner of Main Street and the Westbrook Arterial, preparing the way for a new public safety building at the site. It’s an indication of the seriousness with which the city is pursuing a central, downtown site for the new $8.3 million building, which would consolidate six different sites, including the police station and two fire stations.

 

       Jim Bennett, assistant to the mayor, said shortly before the 5-2 council vote that the city had carefully studied 13 different sites before settling on the Main Street location, currently occupied by an Exxon station, another commercial building and apartments. Siting the new building began after an advisory referendum last year found that 58 percent of the voters favored proceeding. The city has offered a total of $1.1 million to the five property owners involved, and is making progress with four of them, including the Brown family, which operates the gas station on land owned by Webber Oil. The city has offered Webber $350,000 for two parcels, which are assessed at $227,000. Webber has asked for $1.25 million, saying the city is not recognizing the property’s income-producing potential.

 

       Though assembling land for the project appears challenging, Bennett said total site costs might be below the $2 million estimated by a citizens advisory committee. The Main Street site was clearly superior to the others, he said in a memo to the council, based on traffic flow, topography, size – five acres – and the relative ease of acquisition.

 

       The key factor, though, he said in an interview, is the projected response times and proximity to key buildings and the bulk of the population. Fire ratings are based on such factors, so all of the original sites lie more or less within the existing downtown area.

Standish

       Standish was also looking to consolidate its scattered police and fire stations, and opened its new public safety building in February of this year – part of a municipal complex that includes the town offices and a community meeting room. The building is not located in any of the three villages in town – Standish Corner, Sebago Lake, or Steep Falls — however, but half way between the first two, along Route 35.

 

       Plans for the building long predate recent discussion of sprawl, however; the land was purchased in 1994 for $85,000. Following two unsuccessful attempts to gain voter approval, a $1.8 million measure passed; the building actually came in under budget, at $1.6 million.

 

       Standish’s situation reflects that of many rural towns that have faced dramatic growth, observed Town Manager Gordon Billington. Municipal offices were original located in a 1905 school building, but by the 1950s the town was moving out into a variety of other locations. Since none of the existing villages acts as a true commercial hub – though Standish Corner comes closest – the town didn’t consider any of them a strong candidate for a large new municipal building.

 

       The town, which grew 21 percent during the 1990s, to 9,285, is not giving up on connecting its villages, Billington said. A road committee, due to report in January, is looking at creating street grids in both Sebago Lake village and Standish Corner, which ultimately could provide an off-highway connection to the two villages that would, not incidentally, link with the municipal center. Further possibilities for that site include a recreational center. The street plan would take advantage of the old rangeways, which generally mark the boundaries between adjacent properties, making it more likely such a plan would meet with favor from landowners, he said.

York

       On Dec. 1, York residents will celebrate the opening of their new $6 million public library, built on a three acre site right in the village. Library trustees, from the beginning, wanted to keep the library near its present 1926 building next to the Congregational Church, according to Chuck Lawton who until recently chaired the library board. But they faced formidable obstacles in doing so.

 

       Some townspeople favored using town-owned property along Route 1 that Lawton admits would have been cheaper to build on. Another obstacle was the restrictive zoning rules that essentially prevent dense development anywhere in town – even in the village centers where small lots are the rule rather than the exception.

 

       Lawton said the library siting discussion, which went on for years, provides “a classic example” of the pressures of growth and sprawl, and illustrates how towns will have to revamp their approach to land use if they want to retain their villages.

 

       The Route 1 property, ironically, came to York because of local resistance to a state DOT plan to route a connector from Route 1 right into the village. Stymied in part by the efforts of then-Rep. Neil Rolde, DOT then sold the road frontage to the town. Since the town had spent almost $1 million on the land, there was support for locating the library there; ultimately, part of it was sold to Stonewall Kitchens for an expansion of its mail order operation.

 

       The trustees were opposed to the Route 1 site, Lawton said, because it would be accessible only by car, with no opportunity for children (and adults) to walk or bike to the library. Yet locating the library downtown wasn’t easy. Repeated attempts to find a site were frustrated either by excessive wetlands or by the zoning requirement that new driveways be no closer than 75 feet to an existing driveway. Since the whole village includes driveways spaced closer than that, the ordinance prevented new development in the village.

 

       Finally, trustees were able to find a site large enough to accommodate the 20,000 square foot, colonial-style building they had in mind. A community center as well as a library, it is much larger than the existing 3,500-foot building. Even so, they needed a waiver from the zoning requirement that the developed area, including parking, occupy no more than 25 percent of the property. The new library takes up 40 percent, though on adjacent properties the developed footprint is as much as 80-90 percent.

 

       Lawton said the fundraising campaign shows that townspeople support the effort. So far, $3.5 million has been raised to add to $2.1 million previously donated or allocated by the town. Unlike other new libraries, there are no major corporate supporters, and almost all the money was raised locally.

Topsham

       When Topsham got serious about a new library, it considered a downtown site, but ultimately decided on a location less than a mile away, on Foreside Road.

 

       Library Director Linda Prybylo said that 10.5 acre site along the Androscoggin River is close enough to Elm Street and downtown to allow biking and walking, and that it would be easy to extend sidewalks along Foreside Road, if the town decides to do so. A third site, with access from the new Coastal Connector, was also considered, after John Wasileski, developer of The Highlands retirement community, offered to donate land there.

       “John really got the process going again,” Prybylo said, who has found minutes of public meetings in 1989 discussing the need for a new library. The new building will be 13,000 square feet; the original library, located in the Whitten House, was only 1,000 feet, while the building that provides temporary quarters is 5,000 feet. The library paid $185,000 for the property, which had previously been targeted for a residential subdivision, and recouped $85,000 by reselling a house on the property.

 

       Prybylo said that library and town officials spent considerable time evaluating the different sites; their mandate from patrons was to keep the library as close as possible to its existing location.

 

       Topsham is building a new public works garage on part of The Highlands property, and Wasileski offered to donate various sites between three and five acres. Ultimately, access was deemed insufficient. “This is a public building, and we wanted everyone to have equal opportunity,” Prybylo said.

 

       The downtown site, at 6 Summer St., got a longer look. At 2 acres, it was slightly under the 2.5 acres considered optimal. But selectmen saw it as unduly constrained, and voted against it, 5-0. Prybylo said it would have been difficult to expand later – a serious concern considering Topsham’s recent rapid growth.

 

       And although Topsham has a comprehensive plan calling for it to develop a more viable downtown, she said that a lack of progress to date carried some weight in the library’s decision. “The 1997 recommendations of Main Street Vision haven’t been followed through,” she said.

 

       When the committee looked at Freeport’s new library – which moved out of town, after chronic complaints about traffic surrounding L.L. Bean and the outlet stores – they liked what thy saw. The “wooded, more rural area” was easier to get to, and created a more contemplative and relaxed setting for the library, she said.

 

       And while the Topsham library site isn’t in a traditional downtown, it may eventually be located in a neighborhood. A developer is planning a Great American Neighborhood project that would add 120 houses and apartments nearby, and the site is also within walking distance of The Highlands. Fundraising for the building will begin soon; the project does not yet have an estimated cost.

Scarborough

       Scarborough is unusual among Portland-area communities in having no established downtown area, instead growing up around seven separate villages.

 

       The town attempted to fill in part of that gap by building a new municipal building, using a state grant from the 1991 “jobs bond” – a rare example of state support for municipal projects. It opened in 1992. “Even though this will probably never be a commercial hub, it gives the town some focus,” said Town Manager Ron Owens.

 

       The town hall is located near schools and the public library; recently the council decided to propose a new recreational area and trails linking the various buildings in a plan that came to be known as the Town Center project. The idea behind the $5.7 bond issue for the 21-acre site was more concept than detailed plan, though it would not have included the Olympic-sized swimming pool discussed earlier. The voters defeated the plan on Nov. 6 by a margin of  2,471-1,720.

 

       After the vote, Owens said that townspeople might have wanted the school expansion issue settled before deciding what to do with the property. There’s some support for building a new middle school on the site, although other, larger sites elsewhere will also be considered. Municipal buildings have also been a hard sell in Scarborough; two bond issues for the municipal offices were defeated before the town council obtained the state grant.

Unity

       Downtown revitalization in this small Waldo County community was spurred, in part, by the departure of the town office to a nearby strip mall. Like many rural communities, Unity faced losing its village center altogether, according to Mary Ann Hayes, who has chaired Unity Barnraisers and also works for SPO.

 

       The Barnraisers was formed when it became clear that town government didn’t see itself as capable of leading an economic redevelopment effort, Hayes said — though it was willing to support efforts that didn’t involve tax dollars.

 

       On a second try, the Barnraisers, acting for the town, was able to secure a $400,000 Community Development Block Grant. So far, Unity has seen one new building erected in the village and two more have been renovated. Among the new tenants are small retailers, the St. Croix Federal Credit Union and the Unity Health Center – an expanded outpatient center run by Inland Hospital in Waterville. The town has been willing to offer tax increment financing to developers. However, unlike many other communities which have credit enhancement agreements with their TIFs, the retained property taxes are not returned to the developer, but are used to improve public infrastructure such as sidewalks and streetlights.

 

       Thus far, Unity Barnraisers’ biggest achievement has been overhauling the old Masonic Hall, in such poor condition that it might have been abandoned, into a community center. The next phase, according to Hayers, will involve expansion of the local farmers market and creating a trail system, including a pedestrian bridge, that will link the village with nearby Unity College. While no village housing projects are in the offing, those could come later.

Westbrook again

       Not content to wait for the private sector to create neighborhood-style development, Westbrook is trying to do it itself. The Prides Crossing area – a traditional village that has more recently lost its cohesion – is being targeted as the center of a 300-acre site that could host a Great American Neighborhood development.

 

       The city owns 70 acres in the area, obtained from the Portland Water District, which used to run a composting facility there, according to City Planner Matt Eddy. The acreage is not considered suitable for municipal use, however, and could be part of a package offered to a developer.

       Plans for Prides Crossing began taking shape when scattered development began moving north along Route 302 – and after the neighborhood reacted negatively to a large shopping mall proposed for the area. “We knew what the neighborhood didn’t want, and decided to see if we could find out what it did want,” Eddy said.

 

       Discussions to date have shown a generally favorable reaction from landowners, who foresee rising property values under the kind of development the city is proposing.

 

       Part of the idea, Eddy said, is to create new zoning for the area which would encourage denser housing and corresponding green spaces, although so far he hasn’t come up with the right model. When plans are complete, the city will seeking competing proposals from developers; half a dozen have expressed an interest in bidding.

 

       “We know the kind of bad development we’ll get otherwise – residential subdivisions that are all cul de sacs, feeding all the traffic right onto Route 302,” Eddy said. Creating a new neighborhood can also encourage more compact retail areas, he said. “This is a chance to do something as a community, rather than just let growth happen.”