Guest commentary: Narrow-minded views of Urban Renewal sadly still exist

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Those of us who have been around Westbrook a while all know that the federally backed downtown Urban Renewal project of the 1970s had some drawbacks. But in response to a Sept. 6 letter in the American Journal (“Urban Renewal Was Disaster for Westbrook”) it’s unfortunate that still to this day viewpoints exist which refuse to admit that any good came from the project whatsoever. Accusations that Mr. Henry Saunders – an incredibly dedicated Westbrook community volunteer evidenced by his 50-plus years in the local Westbrook-Gorham Rotary service organization – (and his “cronies”) “destroyed our city’s history” is sadly not only unfair, but a bit insulting and unproductive in continuing to move Westbrook forward.

This is especially true considering that Westbrook citizens voted for Urban Renewal in a city-wide referendum, and Mr. Saunders was just one of several who dedicated almost two decades of their lives towards this project. Of the many knowledgeable city and business leaders on the UR Authority team, one was even a former Westbrook mayor – Francis Rocheleau.

Admittedly, it’s not hard to understand the anger Urban Renewal brings up even 40 years later. I used to feel the same way myself – and how could one not, when looking at old photographs of a bustling downtown Westbrook? However, what didn’t show in many of those old photos were the incredibly serious issues lying underneath. Westbrook’s Main Street lies along the prehistoric corridor of the Presumpscot River, and during Urban Renewal a civil engineering team from the University of Maine determined the soils were extremely poor. That is why, prior to Urban Renewal (using earlier building practices), many downtown foundations were extremely unstable and cracking. The Scates building, which had a nice façade on Main Street but was otherwise functionally obsolete, was one of the prime examples of this. During its opening ceremony in 1903, the additional weight of the people shifted the building and it partially sank – the floors were never straight again. As this was where the UR Authority had its offices, they knew the poor shape it was in, and it was the final building to be removed.

In addition to the poor downtown soils, the jumble of overhead electrical wires was unreliable and unsightly, the sewer and stormwater systems were antiquated and not separated (as is the practice today), and there were no off-street parking lots. And, perhaps most importantly, until Urban Renewal, there was no William Clarke (formerly Wayside) Drive. It was still part of the old 1800s Portland and Rochester railroad line. Can you just imagine today if all our downtown traffic was essentially confined to Main Street?

The problems were many, and Urban Renewal fixed quite a few of them pretty well. Was it a perfect project? Not even close, but some good lessons were learned. An independent post-UR analysis via the Vallee Square Development Committee was completed under Mayor Phil Spiller Sr. in 1984. As Westbrook’s first director of Public Works, appointed in 1956, he certainly knew the importance and challenges of public infrastructure improvements.

This Government Services Inc. report generally approved and commended the Urban Renewal Authority’s work on seven out of nine major objectives. It stated “the overall urban renewal plan represented a quality undertaking.” Two failures were indeed noted: establishing the downtown as a community focal point and creating new low- and moderate-income housing options. The report acknowledged, however, the reasons the community focal point objective failed “were outside the control of the municipality … for example, the retail pressures near and around downtown Westbrook (i.e. newer retail centers outside the downtown such as the Pine Tree Plaza and the Maine Mall) … are undermining efforts to reshape the central business district as a shopping center.”

With regards to housing, the report noted “the inability to establish additional housing units was also not the failure of the plan, but of a later discovery that the site selected would not support construction of the size and magnitude anticipated.” The Westbrook UR team, in fact, did investigate potential housing thoroughly , with exploratory trips to Laconia, New Hampshire, and a few other cities. There were major impediments, however, primarily the inability to find a housing investor (funding was only available to purchase existing buildings, not build new ones), and as the Westbrook Housing Authority itself was established simultaneously with the Urban Renewal Authority in 1969, it didn’t have strength in its early years. Another obstacle was the poor soils previously noted, as discovered even recently with Westbrook’s newly opened Convenient MD discovered. The resulting unplanned stone-filled supports for that new building’s foundation drove up construction costs nearly $200,000.

On a macro-scale, it is important to realize one of the biggest limits and drawbacks of Urban Renewal had absolutely nothing to do with its implementation but with the times itself. Today’s popular concept of “mixed-use” redevelopment was almost unheard of during the 1970s. Housing and businesses/offices were rarely combined.

On a final note, the 1984 post-UR report analysis also made recommendations for re-using downtown properties, including turning the former Westbrook High School into residential units and consolidating the Walker and Warren Memorial Libraries, both of which have since been accomplished. The strongest suggestion was to create a Westbrook Economic Development Director position. Can you imagine where the city would be today without the efforts of these ED’s – most recently Bill Baker and our exceptional new Daniel Stevenson?

Overall, the report concluded, “given the complexities of the renewal plan and the time associated … this was an impressive undertaking.”

The Sept 6th letter writer’s statement that “Westbrook could have been another Freeport” is also quite confusing. Westbrook’s downtown was built around numerous mills, such as Dana Warp, Haskell Silk and Westbrook Manufacturing. By the time the Westbrook citizenry voted for Urban Renewal in 1969, those mills had long been shuttered and the downtown was starting to decay. Not only does Freeport not have Westbrook’s mill history, but many of their earlier buildings have been removed as well, only to be replaced by a Main Street built around L.L. Bean and retail shops. I’d much rather have the future and promise of today’s downtown Westbrook than the 3.5 million-plus annual “visitors” in Freeport.

I commend Mr. Philip Galipeau’s efforts as the former president of the Westbrook Business Men’s Association alongside dedicated Mayor O’Gara in the years immediately following Urban Renewal, as well as the efforts of countless community volunteers and municipal officers since then,  in trying to provide the final objectives which Urban Renewal failed to achieve. The immense challenges in making these downtown efforts cohesive are some of the main reasons why today’s downtown revitalization groups, like our own Discover Downtown Westbrook founded in 2014 through the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Main Street America program, are so critical to communities.

Moving forward, I hope we can all realize that the Urban Renewal team did the best job they could using the information, regulations and technology of the times. Just like in remembering our city’s earliest historical discord between Colonel Westbrook’s business interests and local Indian Chief Polin’s fishing interests, all we can do now is honor our past, engage in the present and embolden Westbrook’s future. Healthy discussions based on facts and realistic historical assessments are essential to moving communities forward. Personal insults towards dedicated community volunteers like Henry Saunders and the former Urban Renewal team are not.

Phil Spiller Jr. is the vice president of Discover Downtown Westbrook.
 

Phil Spiller Jr.