Reviving a tired space

WESTBROOK – After more than 30 years, an area of the downtown that was once supposed to attract cafes and other boutique businesses may get a facelift – though, like most cosmetic surgery, the cost could be daunting.

Westbrook Commons, a pedestrian mall connecting Main Street and William Clarke Drive, is the subject of a new effort to secure funds to revamp it.

Keith Luke, Westbrook’s director of community and economic development, appeared before the City Council Monday night to ask permission to seek a $140,000 grant from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development.

The catch, which rankled some councilors, is that the funds, if the city can get them, are a “one-to-one” grant, which means the city will have to come up with $140,000 on its own to match it.

“Is this the best place that we should be putting $140,000? That’s my concern,” said Councilor John O’Hara.

The commons, Luke said, was built as part of the urban renewal movement of the 1970s, and hasn’t been touched since. The initial idea was to make the area attractive to foot traffic, which would in turn encourage businesses that fed on foot traffic, such as small cafes or boutique businesses.

Today, the commons and its two business park buildings are home to several businesses, but they include a law firm, a credit union, a telemarketing company and an insurance underwriter’s office. They share the area with a few abandoned storefronts. Lighting is blocked by trees, and the commons’ dominant feature is a decades-old sculpture with blue symbols that represent musical notes. Metal fixtures that look like water spouts stick out of the top of it. Luke said there may have been a water fountain there once, but if so it hasn’t worked in years. Luke said the sculpture prompted the nickname “Blue Note Park,” which is a reference to the crooner Rudy Vallee, a Westbrook native.

“It doesn’t work as a modern space,” Luke said.

At one end of the space is the former post office, which Ocean Communities Federal Credit Union bought in 2006 and renovated, along with some landscaping near the building. But otherwise there has been no work done in the commons for more than 30 years.

According to the detailed proposal, revamping the space would include removing some of the trees, pulling up uneven concrete slabs, then installing new concrete slabs, putting in new areas of crushed stone, planting new trees, installing new lighting, installing new benches and installing assorted planters. In addition, the plan includes building two pergolas, and also calls for two new concrete pads to accommodate sculptures to be installed in the future.

The plan’s details do not address the existing sculpture, but a sketch of the proposed new area does not include it.

Luke said the plan, assuming the city were to receive the grant, would be to seek matching funds not from the general fund or the budget, but from funds acquired by the city through tax-increment financing programs.

In order to do that, Luke said, he would need to secure the endorsement of the Westbrook Environmental Improvement Corp. (WEIC), which Luke described as a “quasi-municipal entity.” It essentially serves as the branch of city government that manages tax increment financing districts, which funnel property taxes raised in certain areas back into the development of that area.

At Monday’s meeting, O’Hara said he didn’t know how the entire board of the organization would feel, but given the difficult economic times, and the recent deep budget cuts, it is hard to justify such an expense.

“As a member of WEIC, I think WEIC’s dollars need to be spent elsewhere,” he said.

City Planner Molly Just also addressed the council, saying the investment would help the city’s long-term vision of creating a more inviting downtown area.

“I agree it’s not an ideal process, but I think we have an ideal concept,” she said.

Councilor Paul Emery said he appreciated the interest Luke and Just had in the area, and the city’s needs to improve the downtown, but was the sole vote against granting Luke permission to apply for the grant.

“I just would be very wary about where we put our dollars,” he said.

The council voted 4-1, with Council President Brendan Rielly and Councilor Dorothy Aube absent, to seek the grant. On Tuesday, Luke said he would check with the WEIC board to gauge its interest in securing matching funds before moving forward with the grant application.

A sculpture depicting musical notes in honor of the
Westbrook-born crooner Rudy Vallee stands in the middle of
Westbrook Commons, a pedestrian mall that connects Main Street and
William Clarke Drive. The area could be the site of a refurbishment
project if the city can get a grant from state and matching funds.
(Staff photo by Sean Murphy)

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