November 19, 2018 1 COMMENTS

Rethinking strip malls: Communities grapple with retail's shifting landscape

Courtesy / Town of Windham
Courtesy / Town of Windham
A view of the access road from Route 35 to the Shaw's Plaza in Windham from the town's 21st Century Downtown Master Plan.

As Maine grapples with a changing retail climate that doesn't favor strip malls and box stores, the state's towns and cities must rethink how to best use that space, a group of community officials, architects and planners were told Thursday night.

The issue of what to do with strip malls is something "we've been struggling with for years," Lynne Seely, of the Maine Association of Planners, told those gathered at a forum sponsored by the association and GrowSmart Maine.

Every community has a strip mall, Seely said, adding: "We're rethinking how they can contribute more positively to your communities."

Speakers at the forum were Randall Arendt, a longtime urban and rural planner; developer Ethan Boxer-Macomber, and Karen Farber, a former Falmouth town councilor who was part of that town's effort to redevelop its U.S. Route 1 corridor.

Arendt said that zoning designed to retain a community's character often doesn't result in what the community hoped for, and that a focus should shift to visual design rather than allowed uses.

Arendt showed examples of large malls that had been redesigned, both inside and out, to make them more walkable and attractive, but said even if that's not being done there are basic things communities can ask of developers.

"You need to do what's possible for a small New England community," he said.

The focus should be on moving parking behind buildings, planting trees along corridors, creating access connections between shores and shopping areas, encouraging mixes of uses and managing stormwater with natural plantings.

Arendt said putting buildings closer to the road and making them two stories, with upstairs space that's used also helped, and many malls are being redesigned to add those elements.

He and Boxer-Macomber both stressed form-based design, which focuses on the visual rather than use.

Boxer-Macomber, to make his point, showed images that came up when he Googled "Maine" — half of the photos were lighthouses, loons and stunning views, the other were photos of quaint villages and attractive urban areas.

"These are our assets that we need to protect," he said.

Making it happen

Courtesy / Town of Windham
Courtesy / Town of Windham
How access road to the Shaw’s Plaza could look with street-scaping and multi-use buildings close to the road.

Windham is an example of a community that is turning around an unattractive gateway, both Arendt and Boxer-Macomber said. The town's beginnings were rural, and as it evolved, it never fully developed a downtown core, but instead became a patchwork of strip malls.

But in 2013, it developed a 21st Century Downtown Master Plan that includes everything from suggestions on how to change street flow, to changing the landscaping and buildings of the town's central core.

Another town that struggled to create more of an appealing downtown feel is Falmouth,

Farber, who was on the committee that drew up the town's comprehensive plan make its strip-mall heavy Route 1 corridor from Route 88 north to the Turnpike spur attractive, said it takes patience for the vision to become a reality.

The plan did little to change things until the state Department of Transportation moved on repaving Route 1, and the town took advantage. It added better sidewalks and pedestrian islands, put utility lines underground, added more attractive landscaping.

Once it was done, the reaction was, "Ok, this looks nice, but the strip malls still look like strip malls," she said. The property owners are the same, the people leasing the property is the same.

Changes spurred by the zoning changes that went with the redesign are coming more slowly.

She said addition of a minor site plan review has helped, something they didn't initially think about when the focus was on bigger properties, like the 140,000-square-foot Falmouth Center plaza.

Towns thinking differently

Boxer-Macomber said that the case for more attractive, form-based redevelopment must be made to investors, brokers and developers.

He said towns also have to think differently about development, too.

"You have to go out and actively recruit it," he said. "Don't just wait for a commercial broker going out and finding [a big box] drugstore."

Those attending the meeting pointed out more basic issues — how to convince the town to put in harder-to-maintain landscaping islands, or how to convince businesses more trees won't block their signs.

Arendt said towns can choose whether their core will "look like a bomb crater" or have green space, sidewalks and other amenities.

Arendt said those elements must be promoted as part of the infrastructure. "Everything has a value," he said.


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11/20/18 AT 02:23 PM
I love the idea of streetscape buildings: Parking behind buildings especially in Maine in the winter makes great sense. Let's have our older people and elderly walk 100' from their parking stall, around the building and to the front door. Storefronts along sidewalks no one walks down is brilliant. Sounds like the beginning of an ambulance chaser's dream.....lots of slips and falls.

You don't need developers and brokers onboard with this. You need tenants that can afford the rents for this type of design and tenants that will allow for parking in back of buildings. Other than Portland, Maine isn't urban enough for any of this. If the markets had the populations to support this, then it would happen. Don't force it. Let the markets dictate what it should look like.
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