Tall enough? bigger? How about — better?
What were we thinking? And more to the point, what are we doing?
Yes, we do want development. We need development to expand our tax base, to reduce our tax burden, to pay for repairing and maintaining municipal services, and to support education — all to make a better future for all our citizens. We need the right kind of development to provide jobs to help Rockland grow as a good place in which to live and work, as a community that attracts and supports all ages and incomes.
But do we really want to see Main Street lined with buildings 65-feet tall? The hotel proposed for the corner of Pleasant Street will mark the Harbor Park gateway to downtown monumentally.
Do we want this block as gatepost, and perhaps as part of a future wall of buildings lining downtown streets, creating canyons through which we hope our future will flow? Or should we insist on a neighborly building, one that announces and welcomes our aspirations and expectations?
The structure reviewed by the Planning Board on April 15 is not very different from the size of the concrete block rising at the foot of Mechanic Street. As stated in the developer’s submission, the building is about 30 percent larger than the plans approved for construction several years ago, but which, discontinued, has more recently stood as a Stonehenge of modern pillars. The current version of the plans submitted for the hotel shows northern and western walls that are almost as featureless as those of our concrete silos, except punctured by a few small windows, and decorated by some pin-striping.
Would you want to live in the shadow of this new building? Remember, these are our neighborhoods! Look again at the effect this building will have on its surroundings and that other structures likely to follow would impose: a block of a gatepost today, a mouth of huge and irregular teeth tomorrow, and a big-city network of darkened streets to follow. Zoning is meant to assure good neighbors in building size and form, as well as to protect them from adverse impact of noise, vibration, traffic, activity, incompatibility of use, etc. Let’s make zoning work that way, and not just as a vehicle to bring about the kind of change we may regret. We deserve better than what we are getting.
As declared by one participant at a recent meeting at City Hall: “Someone has to be the first to put up a 65-foot building.” Where might the next structure go? It would be allowed under current zoning. Perhaps the former church at the southwest corner of Summer and Main? Or, maybe the one-story block between the FOG and Camden National Bank, the old Woolworth’s (even though it may have been redeveloped under historic easements and tax incentives)?
And what would prevent a developer from tearing down any historic (but still unprotected) building anywhere along our beautiful and recently enlivened Main Street? Remember, this is the downtown that has promoted, and that we will need to attract, continued renovation and new development. Our Main Street is about 50-feet wide, including sidewalks. Now imagine a canyon more than one-third deeper than wide. Main Street would run between buildings along both sides that would have frontage walls15-feet higher than its width of street and sidewalks. Our tallest building on Main Street is the Island Institute, the old Senter’s. This future canyon would be like adding one more story to the Island Institute, and then extending its new height along both sides of Main Street, from end to end within the Downtown Zone. To be sure, new construction would at first appear only here and there, block by block, but eventually, Main Street could become a more-or-less continuous wall sixty-five feet high. This future street would feel much narrower and darker than what we have today, and the sense of being in the gracious, tree-lined corridor we now have would end up more like being at the bottom of a dark ravine.
Buildings do talk to each other and to the street, and to the people that bring the street alive. What does a 65-foot wall say? Does a big block on South Main Street with big walls next to Rock City Coffee Roasters and overshadowing single family houses in the Pleasant Street village speak to them them courteously, or does it turn its back on them, neighbor away from neighbor?
As an architect, I have sought during more than four decades of practice to provide responsible architecture for responsible clients and for the public. I care deeply about the fabric of a community, and keenly feel a duty to provide all citizens with surroundings that foster human scale and lively interaction, with social, aesthetic, and economic vitality. Recreation should not be saved just for the gym.
As a citizen of Rockland, I feel distressed that city officials and committee members, who I am certain all mean well, do not now have the tools I think are needed for the construction of a bright and fruitful future, and for the preservation of the best we have inherited from our past. I fear that we are setting precedent that may permit new development — and demolition and reconstruction — we may come to regret.
Now is the time to reexamine our zoning, before the energy of recent development proposals can prompt wholesale change. Perhaps it is also time to consider a demolition ordinance to provide Rockland with deliberate time to review potential loss of buildings and features we value. Remember how quickly Hollydachs Pet Center was torn down? Next time, we might see a building go suddenly, one that we would really miss. Or should adding constructive delay to new development be none of our business, an affront to private property rights? Other municipalities in Maine and elsewhere have adopted demolition ordinances long ago. We may well come to recognize that we need more than just a Historic District, which protects little the way it stands.
Let’s take a second look at real changes happening right now. The proposal for CMCA on Winter Street was approved only after contentious discussion and a split vote. Though that decision is behind us, its echo may end up louder than its bang. What will its precedent allow now?
Last month’s interpretation of the ordinance in effect authorized CMCA to choose to satisfy just the specific and detailed provisions, effectively excusing further satisfaction of more general findings that would “…ensure both the preservation of the working waterfront on Crockett’s Point and the ‘New England character’ of an extended downtown.” One of these general findings required that a proposal not have “…a marked absence of architectural elements characteristic of the predominant architecture of structures on Main Street between Park and Lindsey streets constructed prior to 1941….” There is nothing magic about 1941, or even about trying to recreate a time long past — simply a desire not to insult what the past gives to us as we build on it for a healthy future. The alternative interpretation of the ordinance, in short, is how we got the wall along Winter Street, a wall more like the sides of Staples and Hannaford that nobody pays attention to, than the lively street front along Main Street that the Council said we wanted to preserve, reinforce, and extend at the time that it passed current zoning.
Nevertheless, this goal to enhance our “New England Character” in an “extended downtown” states powerfully our desire for scale and continuity. Apparently, though, wishes do not always results accomplish. If the Planning Board considers this general requirement to be optional, as it apparently did to approve CMCA’s application (at the same time discounting the interpretation of the ordinance by the City Attorney), what might be next?
A former mayor during the time this section of the ordinance was adopted twice admonished the Planning Board during its review of CMCA to expand on the flexibility that he had earlier argued was necessary to leave room (as he put it) for “creativity needed by the architect.” How much room for how much creativity do we really want? From decades of practice, I can assure you that responsible constraint spurs responsible creativity, and does not quash imaginative expression. We all can likely call up images of unleashed architectural dreams that we today find has not served the public well. Well? Well, the ordinance, as recently interpreted by the Planning Board, may require us to accept proposals that will prompt later dismay. Let’s pay attention to this outcome, and what it might bring to us.
Could this be the new Farnsworth? Google “Amsterdam art museum” and click on “Images.”
The above sketch of a view looking north from in front of Atlantic Bakery illustrates hypothetical replacement of the Farnsworth Museum by an adaptation of the recently-constructed addition to the Stedelijk Art Museum in Amsterdam, and shows a building that I believe the Planning Board would have to approve under the precedent it set by excusing CMCA from meeting the zoning ordinance. And I believe that under this precedent (which I continue to think was quite incorrect), the ordinance would otherwise require the Code Enforcement Officer to issue a building permit for such a building as sketched above.
Impossible? Imagine what the Amsterdam press may have said about their new museum (Google: “Amsterdam Art Museum Images”)!
Sketch of the hotel block proposed at the corner of Pleasant Street and South Main Street.
View looking south: Time Out Pub on the left; Myrtle Street Pub to the right, and Bricks under the block.
Now, back to the hotel proposed to enlarge the originally smaller construction project that had been stalled for years next to Rock City Coffee Roasters, and next to a much more extensive (but much smaller-scaled) existing and traditional residential neighborhood. This hotel expands significantly the space and bulk originally planned for the shops, offices, and residential condominiums approved several years ago. Perhaps this new design meets the ordinance as a massive block, but it presents sides that face west and north that are brutally plain. They appear to be party walls for future redevelopment next door. Truly, deciding the overall scale of our downtown should be the real issue.
Contrast the size of the north wall of the proposed structure with the buildings beneath it, Rock City Coffee Roasters, and Bricks. Will their value decrease because of the shadow and bulk cast over them by the new hotel, or is their redevelopment potential enhanced by the construction of their new neighbor?
What, at this point, is our choice as citizens and voters? We could continue to reap what others may sow beyond our control, or we could take action. We could, if we wanted to form and express an opinion strongly, ensure a long-term vision to avoid changes that destroy the character of the downtown we greatly value. This heritage belongs to us. Others living here and from away also think it has value. If you think prompt action is needed, or even just appropriate, ask our Council about how to proceed, and perhaps to consider delaying new proposals until we reevaluate what we want, and update our zoning appropriately. Until an application is deemed complete, my understanding is that courts in Maine have decided that current rules are susceptible to revision.
Perhaps our existing system of regulating space and bulk, making only general statements of intent, and giving citizen boards leeway to commingle aesthetic and civic judgment, is not the best way to get the future we will be happy to inhabit. Other, effective approaches to addressing building form and civic behavior exist. Let’s at least learn about them. They certainly need not result in recreating our honorable and glorious past in Disney-esque parody, nor destroy our heritage. Let us reconsider the future we want to leave behind us before it arrives.
Will we get what we deserve? Or, do we deserve what we might get? Let’s speak up.
George Terrien is from Rockland.