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Updated: February 6, 2023

Word on the street: Downtown rebound, office conversions top Maine development trends

Photo / Tim Greenway Auburn Mayor Jason Levesque predicts that pop-up retail cottages in Festival Plaza this summer will spark more traditional downtown retail construction.

From downtown retail to office-building conversions into other uses, commercial development is sizzling across Maine. For a lowdown on what’s trending in 2023, Mainebiz asked experts including mayors, economic development directors and those working in real estate for the trends they’re most excited about this year.

Here’s what they told us.

Auburn continues growth of new housing and manufacturing space: Jason Levesque, Auburn mayor

“Manufacturing space and housing will be much needed throughout 2023 and beyond. The success of manufacturing employers in Auburn such as Tambrands’ recent expansion announcements, warehouse construction for consumer goods companies and a corresponding increase in high-paying jobs are going to push the need for housing and manufacturing/warehouse space.”

Urban infill’

 "Urban infill will be one of the trends for Auburn in 2023. Several major urban infill mixed-use residential/restaurant projects will start or be announced this year. These projects will provide excellent access to recreation facilities, accessibility and walkability in Auburn. The need for retail space in downtown continues, so that the city will feature pop-up retail cottages in Festival Plaza throughout the summer of 2023 as a temporary proof of concept, which will lead to more traditional downtown retail construction. 

Smaller urban infill projects are in the works, such as second dwelling units in the urban core where single-family homes already exist are becoming more common with Form-Based Code’s flexibility for traditional setbacks and development patterns — people are responding with investment that will produce diverse, high-quality market-rate housing.”

Lewiston putting a Choice Neighborhood grant to use: Carl Sheline, Auburn mayor 

Photo / Courtesy of the City of Lewiston
Carl Sheline, Lewiston mayor

“We’ll be breaking ground on the first of our Choice Neighborhood grant developments this year. This project, which will ultimately include two other sites in downtown Lewiston, will drive a lot of development over the next few years. We’re expecting the total investment to be approximately $100 million.

“Raise-Op’s two cooperative housing apartment buildings will be finished over the summer. Not only were these planned and designed with input from future residents, but these developments will also be the first passive-house certified buildings in Lewiston.”

Transforming a church into a brew pub

“I’m also excited about Democracy Brewing, who will be renovating the former St. Joseph’s Church into a brew pub and the new Bon Vivant restaurant, which will open soon.”

Westbrook’s ‘Rock’ of development growth: Michael Foley, Westbrook mayor 

Photo / Courtesy of the City of Westbrook
Michael Foley, Westbrook mayor

“The city of Westbrook has a lot of exciting commercial development activity with projects such as Vertical Harvest and Rock Row. In our downtown, the Vertical Harvest project and parking garage is well underway with the goal of being completed around the end of 2023. This project has generated a lot of interest in future development of both commercial and residential opportunities for our downtown that we hope to see in the years ahead. At Rock Row, Orangetheory [Fitness] and Cowbell Burger are near completion, and construction is well underway for the world-class New England Cancer Center and associated parking garage. We anticipate construction of residential units and more commercial projects at Rock Row around the end of 2023.”

Bullish on Bangor retail: Anne Krieg, Bangor Office of Economic and Community Development

Photo / Courtesy of Anne Krieg
Anne Krieg, Bangor Office of Economic and Community Development, director

“We saw decent holiday spending this holiday season and, anecdotally, I have heard a slight drop in January. This drop is typical of post-holiday spending.  There is some uncertainty in spending right now due to national concerns of the economy; however, what we have seen are strengths in two areas of retail. The first is [that] experiential shopping is back. People were happy to get out and shop in person again. Though COVID has not gone away, people are more comfortable shopping together again in person. This is good news for downtowns like Bangor that offer outside pedestrian areas and dining and a diverse choice of independent retail options. The other strong retail area that remains healthy in Bangor is destination retail.  Our large retail anchors as Target, Walmart, as well as the shopping centers appear to continue to see good numbers."

Augusta’s downtown revival: Keith Luke, Augusta economic development director

“What is on trend in Augusta for 2023 is the return of the capital city’s downtown. Our street-level vacancy rate has dipped below 20% for the first time in over a generation, and the downtown restaurant count is now at 10, with a new bakery opening a retail storefront in the next couple of weeks. Water Street has re-emerged as the hub of Central Maine nightlife.”

Photo / Tim Greenway
Keith Luke, Augusta’s economic development director, says that Water Street has reemerged as the hub of Central Maine’s nightlife. He’s pictured at State Lunch, at 217 Water St.

Capital investments

“What we continue to see in Augusta is investment capital moving northward from established markets between Boston and Portland and into markets like Augusta and Waterville. The historic Olde Federal Building on Water Street is being acquired by the Goldman Group of Boston, and the city’s planning board recently approved 25 market-rate apartments, ground-floor retail and a rooftop bar overlooking the Kennebec River.”

Main Street momentum: Garvan Donegan, Central Maine Growth Council 

File Photo / Tim Greenway
Garvan Donegan, Central Maine Growth Council, director of planning, innovation and economic development

"The trend of returning to Main Street is expected to continue, with Waterville playing a prominent role in the revitalization of its downtown. We anticipate increased investments with a focus on place-based initiatives, the creative economy, business attraction, mixed-use developments and entrepreneurship. Public-private partnerships for larger-scale projects that target downtowns, community benefit and workforce and market rate housing needs are also estimated to see growth.”

‘Innovation hubs’ and entrepreneurial support

“Economic development strategies in Waterville and mid-Maine will continue to prioritize the establishment of innovation hubs and entrepreneurial ecosystems, as state and regional academic institutions bolster the knowledge economy and provide foundational infrastructure that de-risks supportive development opportunities and drives the construction of new facilities and associated programming.

From office buildings to residences: Jessica Estes, Boulos Co. president

Photo / Courtesy of The Boulos CO.
Jessica Estes, Boulos Co., president

“Older downtown office buildings will continue to be converted to residential, especially on the upper floors. Office vacancy will increase in the suburbs but will remain fairly stable downtown. We won’t see major new office or residential buildings proposed in Portland until regulations are loosened, interest rates decrease, or both.”

Greater Portland outlook

“Towns such as Westbrook, Falmouth and Scarborough will continue to be the beneficiary of Portland’s strict ordinances, and housing will be constructed in those communities versus Portland.”

Making space for light industrial use: Justin Lamontagne, Dunham Group

File Photo
Justin Lamontagne, Dunham Group, partner and designated broker

“An interesting trend we’re identifying and tracking is the repositioning of office space into light industrial and storage. No sector was hit harder by the pandemic than the office market, particularly in suburban settings. There are huge swaths of open office space sitting empty. So savvy landlords and brokers are now considering alternative uses that don’t conflict with neighboring businesses and/or zoning compliance. I have two light manufacturer clients who are pursuing first-floor office space as permanent homes for their businesses. The grade-level access, abundant parking, interior temperature controls and natural light actually translate to extremely viable light manufacturing work environments. Couple the need to fill office vacancies with the historically tight industrial market inventory, and there could be real win-wins with this trend.”

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