SOUTH PORTLAND — When Bob Johnson bought an old building in Willard Square nearly six years ago with plans to open a bakery, friends said he would be wise to reconsider.
Now, Johnson’s Scratch Bakery, which uses locally produced and organic ingredients whenever possible, has become a destination for people living in and around the intersection of Pillsbury and Preble streets, where village life is re-emerging.
“It was nothing like it is now,” Johnson said of the square when his business first opened. “The culture is changing. It’s been fascinating to watch. It’s really got a village feel, which is cool.”
Beginning in August, the city will start making some long-awaited changes to Willard Square in an effort to make it more pedestrian friendly. The sprawling intersection will be narrowed on each side, new concrete sidewalks with granite curbing will be installed, and more grass will be added to the landscape.
“If you’re from here, you know how (the intersection) works,” Johnson said, sitting in his office that overlooks the square. “But a lot of people aren’t (from here) and don’t (know how it works), especially this time of year.”
Although a three- to four-week construction period will present a short-term headache for business owners, Johnson said the improvements will make the area more attractive to residents, visitors and business owners.
“In the long-term, I think it will be great,” he said.
The city project will be the latest development in the ongoing metamorphosis of Willard Square, sandwiched between Southern Maine Community College, Willard Beach, DiPietro’s corner and Loveitts Field.
Within the last year, two other businesses have opened up in the square, and another is expected to open next year.
One of the new ones, & Unlimited Photography, specializes in pet photography. The other is Willard Scoops, a small, brightly colored ice cream shop serving more than two dozen flavors of ice cream as well as sorbet, frozen yogurt and fruit smoothies.
“(Business) has been really good, now that the month of rain has stopped,” employee Annie Cutler, 18, said this week.
The hard-serve ice cream at Willard Scoops is supplied by Mount Desert Island Ice Cream and comes in flavors like Hot Chili Chocolate, Salt Caramel, Mocha Toffee Almond, Black Strap Banana and Jack Daniels.
It’s the type of emerging village environment that has kept United Kingdom resident Lisa Foster motivated to complete a project that would turn a 1700s-era house, once owned by her late grandmother, into an art studio, and perhaps more. Her plans include creating a membership-based artist co-op where people can use studio space to create and show their work at an on-site art gallery. Art and photography classes for children and adults will also be included.
Plans originally called for a cafe, but Foster said she could not design her restroom to comply with accessibility laws, so that component has been scraped.
Foster has been working for years to make her dream a reality, spearheading an effort to reduce off-street parking requirements by leading a community effort to rezone the square. She hoped to open the Willard Square Studio this summer, but said the opening has now been delayed until next summer.
The biggest bump in the road, she said, has been a determination by city staff that her studio does not fit within the permitted uses that would allow her to reduce parking on the small lot at the corner of Willow and Preble streets. Although the rezoning effort was intended to allow her studio, she must now ask the City Council for an amendment.
Not only is a zoning change needed; her project must go through Planning Board site review, which is triggered at 1,000 square feet, roughly the size of the project. Meanwhile, she can’t get financing until she has her site plan approved.
“This has really put a big delay in our plans,” said Foster, who was frustrated by the hurdles while trying to open a new business in a down economy. “This isn’t a money-making venture, as far as I can tell. This is something very nice to give to the community as a remembrance of my grandmother.”
The delay, however, has allowed Foster to take a more comprehensive view of her project. In recent weeks, construction crews have repositioned the old house, aligning it to face Willow Street.
Meanwhile, Foster has had more time to think big. She said she is kicking around the idea of opening a farmer’s market along Preble Street to compliment the studio. If the market comes to fruition and is a success, Foster said she may carve out a permanent home within the development, which will eventually include another two-story building.
“We’ve thought about (quitting) a lot over the last two months, but we’re committed to seeing it through,” she said. “It will be a really nice addition to the square. The residents deserve it.”
Johnson said he is encouraged by recent and planned developments in Willard Square and that he has no regrets about defying the skeptics.
“Business has grown every year,” he said. “We wanted to be a neighborhood bakery and that’s what we are.”
Owner Bob Johnson enjoys a cup of coffee in front of his Scratch Bakery business on Willard Square in South Portland.