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National planning group says Bath’s Front Street is 'Great'

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National planning group says Bath’s Front Street is 'Great'

BATH — Local officials this week said the American Planning Association's inclusion of Front Street as one of 10 "Great Streets of 2009" is a nod to an effort three decades in the making.

The association's Great Places in America program recognizes places that showcase the character and planning that go into communities of rich and lasting value.

According to the association, it chose Front Street due to the "long-standing commitment of city leaders, merchants and residents to protect the street's historic and maritime character as well as its economic vitality. In addition, the street stands out for its unique sense of place, framing views of the Kennebec River and the town's place-defining trademark, the giant red-and-white Bath Iron Works crane."

City Council Chairman Bernie Wyman, who has lived in Bath all his life, recalled Front Street being "the center of activity" in the 1950s before suddenly becoming abandoned a decade later.

"Since the late 1970s Front Street has been on the incline," he said. "Over the last 15 to 20 years we have seen the return of a grocery store, restaurants, shops, and, most of all, people – all as a result of dedicated work of the citizens of Bath and thoughtful planning by the city."

Judy Barrington, who has served on the nonprofit volunteer group Sagadahoc Preservation since soon after its 1971 inception, was among those dedicated citizens. She recalled on Tuesday how in the second half of the 1970s the group established a committee for downtown restoration, headed by Peggy Chapman.

Barrington said she worked with Jimmy Stilphen on drawings of downtown storefronts to show how the buildings could be renovated, and they also visited Newburyport, Mass., to look at sidewalks and street lights that were compatible with those in Bath before making recommendations to the city.

The movement was "an outgrowth of realizing that we couldn't compete with the new malls that were going up," Barrington said. "And that just getting rid of all the buildings (and erecting modern structures) was not going to help."

Citizens met to determine what made Bath special, "and it was the fact that we had so many intact 19th century buildings, and that we had a good number of tourists who were coming in who went to Popham Beach, and we had the (Maine Maritime) museum," Barrington said. "So the decision was pretty much made that we had to do the best we could to make this ... a place that people would want to come to, and also make it enjoyable for the people who live here."

Known as a hub of commerce, civic engagement and fellowship for two centuries, Front Street has several historic and architectural landmarks. They include the Italianate-style U.S. Custom House, completed in 1858, and the 80-year-old Davenport Memorial Building, which now serves as City Hall.

In 1960, Bath residents defeated an urban renewal proposal that would have converted Front Street into a pedestrian mall.

Three comprehensive plans since 1997 have helped to shape Bath's direction for the future. The City Council adopted the most recent plan this year after four years of work by citizen committees, as well as city planners like Jim Upham.

"It's an award to all of us," said the Bath planning director. "People who have been volunteers on boards, and city officials, and staff and so forth, who have helped to make not only Bath a great community, but Front Street a great street, for decades."

Upham said Front Street was nominated by someone, but he wasn't sure who. He thought it could have been someone on the American Planning Association staff, or one of his colleagues. Upham himself is a member of the association.

"We're very excited to single out Front Street as one of this year's Great Streets," said Paul Farmer, chief executive officer of the association. "We commend Bath's citizens for leading the historic preservation efforts along the street. Their far-sighted thinking, careful attention to detail and concern for a healthy local business environment helped shape the street's restoration so it creates lasting value for Bath."

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net.