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Projects that can transform a community, from Millinocket to Arundel, were named "outstanding" in this year's Smart Growth Awards from GrowSmart Maine, at the nonprofit advocacy group's second annual summit.
The conference, held at the Pepperell Mill complex in Biddeford Thursday, focused on development and other elements that affect the health of communities, large and small, across Maine. Participants not only attended workshops and discussions, but toured the host cities of Biddeford and Saco to experience some of the progress firsthand.
Named "Outstanding Projects" at the summit were the Northern Forest Center's Millinocket Housing Initiative; the Bethel Community Forest and Mahoosuc Pathways project; the design of Parris Terraces in Portland by Kaplan Thompson Architects; and the Charter Oaks Village Cooperative in Arundel and Biddeford.
Delilah Poupore, executive director of downtown group Heart of Biddeford, was recognized for Demonstrable Commitment to Smart Growth.
The awards "recognize the diverse activities that contribute to smart growth, and also serve as real-life illustrations of the benefits it can bring," a news release said. "This year’s winners showcase practical solutions to such challenges as the need for affordable housing, rebuilding downtowns and conserving land for public use."
Judges considered whether entries provided lessons that can be replicated statewide, and whether they had the potential to transform a neighborhood or community point of view, said Nancy Smith, executive director of GrowSmart Maine.
Judges were Charles Colgan, former Maine state economist; Evan Richert, former head of state planning and long-time Maine community planner; and Maureen Drouin, executive director of Maine Conservation Voters. (See sidebar for more on the award winners.)
The theme of this year's summit was Smart Growth Builds Wellness, a theme that stretched from talks about "well buildings" to affordable housing to land use and development.
"Health and wellness should be a right not a privilege," guest speaker Zoe Reich Margarites said in a keynote address. "For anyone with a roof over their head, that should be a requirement."
Margarites, vice president of market solutions for the International WELL Building Institute, said the physical and mental well-being of inhabitants should be taken into account for every type of building that people will be in, whether an office or a home.
She cited the Nature Conservancy's new headquarters at Fort Andross in Brunswick, which recently became the first structure in northern New England to be WELL building-certified by the institute. Certification covers everything from energy use and building materials to programs for the mental and physical health of those who work there.
"It's so exciting to see WELL-building standards penetrate the market here in Maine," she said.
Christopher Coes, vice president, land use and development for Smart Growth America, also delivered a keynote, and said suburban sprawl has become so pervasive in the U.S. that two of the last three recessions were real estate-related.
He said the new focus on living closer to jobs and services, cutting down on the need for extensive transportation and aiming for walkability, makes for healthier communities. And it's not only about people looking for a place to live — CEOs and entrepreneurs are also looking to locate in community centers.
"If you want to succeed in the 21st-century market, you have to be in places people want to live in," he said.
In a breakout session on how municipalities can find ways to create affordable housing, Jeff Levine, Portland's former director of planning and urban development, said, "Just getting people into a safe place to live is essential to a healthy community."
People can't contribute to the basic elements of healthy community living, for instance by recycling, if they don't have shelter, said Levine, now a lecturer of economic development and planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It's the last thing on your mind if you don't have a place to live."
Levine and Victoria Morales, executive director of the Quality Housing Coalition, discussed affordable housing solutions for municipalities. Some tools discussed were creating land trust for housing; using surplus municipal land; and linkage fees for developers who build market-rate housing;
"It doesn't need to be expensive or crazy," Levine said.
They also said developing an ordinance that allows higher-density projects if a developer includes low-income housing, rather than have developers seek contract zones specific to a project makes it easier to get affordable housing through the approval process.
"It can be painful and time-consuming" to go before town boards to get a contract zone — a zoning change specific to a project — Morales said. She said an overall zone that allows affordable housing is also more sustainable for town planning.
This is the first year that two municipalities — Biddeford and Saco — have hosted the conference.
Participants in the afternoon chose between walking tour "experience sessions" that highlighted different aspects of healthy growth in the communities. Tours included a look at the Riverwalk linking the two cities, Biddeford's food-ecosystem and the Pepperell Mill solar energy system; a tour focused on growing community through the arts, highlighting Biddeford's cultural features; a zoning-focused tour of Saco; and one that highlighted Saco's downtown development.
The Saco downtown development included a look at both development of former textile mills on Saco Island, which separates the two cities, as well as its robust Saco Main Street program.
The group toured Mill 4, which was developed into 150 market rate apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial space by Chinburg Properties, one of the developers of the Lincoln Mill in Biddeford. The apartments opened last year, and two restaurants are among the tenants slated for the commercial space.
"When I first got here, this was vacant, dirty," said Rob Biggs, director of Saco Main Street.
Development funding included a tax increment financing district, which diverts development taxes to redevelopment projects, as well as historic preservation tax credits and other state and federal funding sources.
Matthew Dubois, of Chinburg, said that the apartments were fully rented out before the building opened.
The tour also included Saco's busy Main Street, where the stores and offices are almost fully occupied, Biggs said.
The city is one of 10 that are Main Street Maine municipalities, a program that highlights economic sustainability through vibrant downtowns that are walkable, preserve historic preservation, and more.
Anne Ball, director of the Maine Downtown Center, which coordinates the Main Street Maine program, said Saco's downtown in a great example of how a city center can thrive. "It's a whole Main Street approach that takes in design economic vitality, organization and promotion," she told the group.
Saco Main Street programs include everything from the use of Adirondack chairs, made by inmates of the Maine State Prison and painted by local artists, that are auctioned off at the end of the summer, to an ice cream shop it runs both to make money and serve as a community hub.
Biggs said that the proximity of residents, not only in neighborhoods that are right off Main Street but also new ones in the nearby former mills, helps add to downtown's vitality. He said that restaurants in the city core used to close early, but a push to keep them open into the evening has been successful. As a result, other businesses, seeing the activity, have located in downtown.
"People see what's happening here, and they want to be part of it," he said.