An entire block of buildings, across the street from the office where I write this blog, is up for sale. It’s a significant chunk of downtown Bangor, and whoever develops it will have an opportunity to influence the direction of the city’s future.
I wish I had $1.92 million to invest. But as a friend recently said, “I’m a middle class American. I don’t have any money.”
I hope whoever buys the block encourages some downtown-appropriate businesses. I’d love to be able to walk out of my office building and buy an ink cartridge and a ream of paper, or some glue and a few nails. But there isn’t an office-supply store or a hardware store within easy walking distance.
The buildings are within sight of the site of the old train station, which used to be the center of town. The tracks are still there, but Union Station was torn down in the 1960s, as the automobile took over the American economy.
It was a shortsighted decision, as nearly everyone acknowledges now. Even before trains come back – as they surely will, in some form – that historic building could have been refurbished and reused. Rockland’s train station and attached bar and restaurant draws patrons whether or not the seasonal Brunswick train is running that day.
Downtown Bangor has plenty of bars and restaurants. Nightlife isn’t a problem. That hasn’t happened by itself, of course. It took a city government willing to invest in the downtown, and a citizenry invested enough to vote for a new arena and civic center. And new groups of energetic volunteers have sprung up to improve walking and bicycling trails around the center of the city. Bangor, to paraphrase the Beatles song, is getting better all the time.
Still, I wonder what can be done to bring more real business serving real needs back downtown. I mourned the closing of the hardware store in Penobscot Plaza, on the footprint of Union Station. My eye doctor used to be there, too, until abandoning the spot for a new building out on the Brewer Strip. And it’s hard to find anyplace other than the Sunday farmers’ market to buy an onion or an apple.
Continued support from a committed city council is crucial. But engaging citizens in changing their transportation habits is just as important. Demolishing train stations and building shopping malls had the effect, all over America, of driving commerce out of downtowns. It’s time to reel that back.
Fortunately, there are signs that this is already happening. The first thing anybody talks about when it comes to downtown businesses is parking. But not everybody wants to shop by car, especially for small, portable purchases. Realizing this, cities are beginning to rethink their parking requirements for new developments. As writer Ben Adler points out in a recent issue of Grist, zoning regulations over the past 50 years have encouraged people to drive, by mandating more parking than is often necessary:
“The costs of building that parking get passed on to residents and customers whether or not they drive. By subsidizing parking in that way, we encourage people to drive. And surrounding every building with parking makes cities less friendly to walkers and eats up green space.”
Parking requirements drive up costs of commercial and residential development, which get passed on to tenants and retail customers. When I rented an apartment within walking distance of downtown, I got a parking space, whether I used it or not. I imagine this is the case throughout Bangor. Tenants without cars receive no break on their rent, while tenants with cars get a parking space subsidized by the rest of us.
But individual attitudes have to change, too. Why will people walk across a parking lot at the mall but not an equal distance from a downtown parking garage or bus depot? There’s good news on that front, too. In a story for the January 16, 2016 Atlantic, Julie Beck documents the declining percentages of Americans willing to accept driving as a way of life:
“According to a new study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, the percentage of people with a driver’s license decreased between 2011 and 2014, across all age groups. For people aged 16 to 44, that percentage has been decreasing steadily since 1983.”
Central to all of this is a good system of public transportation. Which is why Bangor’s bus hub must remain downtown – close to new business opportunities, and the old train station that may someday rise again.