Bath museum improvements could begin next fall

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BATH — Maine Maritime Museum’s campus redesign project could go before the Planning Board for site plan review next spring.

In the meantime, the 243 Washington St. history hub will start work this month with a civil engineer to refine its preliminary sketch plan, develop cost estimates and establish timing for what is likely to be a phased project, according to Executive Director Amy Lent.

Given city approval, the improvements could begin in November 2018.

The museum went before the Planning Board July 18 for a pre-application workshop to present its plans and hear feedback. The panel on Dec. 5 unanimously granted the museum’s request to rezone two residential properties the institution purchased for museum purposes.

The approximately 20-acre campus is comprised of three properties that follow the Kennebec River down along Washington Street. To the north is the historic Donnell and Percy & Small shipyards, as well as the life-sized evocation of the Wyoming, the largest wooden ship ever built in the U.S.

The centerpiece houses the maritime history building with galleries, administrative offices, and the parking lot. The campus’s south end has the Deering Pier where cruise ships tie up, the gravel back parking lot, and the Snow Squall clipper ship exhibit and education building.

Amid this cluster of museum assets, couched between the main and south end parking lots, are the two residential properties. The museum bought those parcels in order to have contiguous frontage along the street and room for aesthetic and access improvements.

Two houses and outbuildings sit on those residential properties, which total less than an acre. The lots would in part be used for expanded and more efficient parking, and the museum will look for someone to purchase the two houses at a “fair and reasonable price” and move them, Lent has said.

“We want to make sure that we are only entertaining serious and capable people,” she said in an interview Monday, noting that due to the complicated and expensive process of moving a home, the museum would want assurances that the mover will see the plan through.

The scope of improvements, which the museum is calling its “First Impressions” project, would stretch from the museum’s front entrance to its south parking lot. The south lot partially facilitates overflow parking from the main lot, but the two are not connected.

The museum’s front steps are beginning to deteriorate after two decades of freeze and thaw, Lent has said, with shifting starting within the brick and granite.

Finding replacement of the steps to be costly, museum staff decided if they were to spend that type of money, they might as well tackle other issues there, like enhancing handicapped-accessible parking by moving the parking up to the same grade as the front entrance.

In improving and restructuring its parking areas, often the first impression a visitor has there, the museum wants to incorporate educational elements, as opposed to “purely a parking lot with acres of cars,” Lent explained. “We want to create something that’s attractively landscaped, but also creates a learning environment throughout the campus, before you even get to the (main) building.”

To that end, the museum plans to plant a “trail of shipbuilder trees,” composed of the type of lumber used in constructing wooden vessels – oak, white pine, cedar, and hackmatack, for example – in the past four centuries of Bath area shipbuilding.

Signage would explain the types of trees, and the qualities that made them suitable and desirable for certain types of shipbuilding, Lent said.

“We could incorporate that as you’re walking from your car to the museum,” she added. “So you’re getting a sense of how the natural environment on the coast of Maine was conducive to shipbuilding happening here.”

The green spaces would be incorporated into the museum’s parking areas. The main lot would be an improvement of the existing area in front of the main building, with fill going in to heighten the grade closer to the level of Washington Street.

The center lot would stand where the two residential lots exist, and the south lot would be paved and striped. The lots, along with a bus and camper parking area, would be accessed via a circular turnaround driveway within the complex.

Handicap parking will sit closer to the front door. And where vehicle congestion now sometimes develops at the top of the driveway, parking would be pulled away from the main building to make room for a plaza on which people can safely congregate outside the museum.

The project would not add much to the existing parking area, but would make them “official and marked, so that you can actually maximize the space that you have,” Lent said.

Visitors coming from the south end lot, often disembarking from cruise ships, “are basically walking through a dusty, dirt parking lot that directs them toward our loading dock and dumpsters,” Lent said in July. “It’s not a welcoming first impression.”

The museum aims to maximize its scenic views of the Kennebec River, marshlands and Doubling Point Light Station at the south end. Public spaces for visitors, with educational fixtures on the river, wildlife and history are being planned. The parking lot would be pulled back from the waterfront to create more attractive, ecologically friendly spaces, and include park benches.

“We want to take some of those great natural and environmental experiences that people can have and highlight them,” Lent said.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

This preliminary sketch plan shows the Maine Maritime Museum’s aims for improved parking and landscaping at its Washington Street campus in Bath. The plan will be fine-tuned in the coming months.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.