FALMOUTH — A small crowd attended Saturday’s charette at Plummer-Motz School to give input and learn more about the possibilities for redevelopment and expansion of the Falmouth Shopping Center and surrounding property.
A large majority of the approximately 65 people in attendance were from the Foreside area. Residents participated in small discussion groups and polls that town officials and developers hope will give them direction and focus as they look to the future.
Though results still need to be compiled, a few trends emerged: reluctance over “big-box” development; interest in acquiring the 12-acre parcel currently supporting the Maine Turnpike spur cloverleaf; and protection of the watershed and natural resources.
“I think if there was something that stood out, it was that people had no interest in considering a big-box development over 90,000 square feet at that site,” Long-Range Planning Director Theo Holtwijk said. “They felt development footprints ought to be less than that.”
People indicated they were more interested in walkable, mixed-use commercial development with an internal street, with buildings of smaller footprints that face each other, Holtwijk added.
The process began more than a year ago, when representatives of JPA Corp., which owns the Route 1 shopping center and adjoining property, approached the town about zoning and preliminary plans to expand. The Town Council wanted the process to be public and chose the venue of a charette as a way to engage the community.
Though the Community Development Committee allotted 5 1/2 hours for the charette, it wrapped up an hour ahead of schedule.
“We had heard some people felt it was a long program so we tried to be respectful of their time,” Holtwijk said. He said he was pleased with the outcome and “it did everything we hoped it would do.”
Holtwijk said his impression was most residents were not opposed to some shopping center expansion, as long as it is balanced with environmental protection.
One participant, Amanda Henson, lives on Meadow Creek Lane, which abuts the property under discussion. Henson, who has attended many of the CDC meetings leading up to the charette, said she appreciated the council’s desire to obtain public input and said she found Saturday’s event to be helpful and well-run.
Henson said the event helped her realize many others shared her environmental concerns. Though she sees the potential for making the shopping center much nicer, she said she hoped they would not develop the entire parcel.
But she said the first step should be to find tenants for the empty space in the existing shopping center.
Many echoed her concern, including Book Review bookstore owner Donna Williams, who has seen a lot of changes in her 30 years as a tenant at the Falmouth Shopping Center. Although she thought the charette was well done, Williams said she wished there had been more questions about the “social aspect” of the shopping center and its role as a community gathering place.
“People are very concerned about the physical details of the buildings, but how do they behave?” she said. “Thirty years ago, people came here and it was a pedestrian-friendly community center. The likelihood of them seeing one of their neighbors and getting a cup of coffee – all that happened. I just can’t tell you how many little reunions we witnessed.”
The developers’ representative, Andrew Gilmore, said the owners are “very interested” in filling the existing space, but are not in active negotiations for tenants.
“Retail has been significantly hit with the downturn in the economy,” he said. “That’s why now is the perfect time to plan for the future. Understanding how the undeveloped piece will be addressed affects how you market the entire center.”
From looking at both Saturday’s charette and a facilities charette held last spring, Gilmore said he understood the town did not want community use of the shopping center and he recalled several questions surrounding that were taken out of the polling after the facilities event. From some of the discussion on Saturday, Gilmore said it appeared to be important to people to keep the property privately owned and on the tax rolls.
Not everybody was enthusiastic about the charette.
Resident Bill Gardner said the results are skewed because of the predominance of residents from the immediate area and because, according to him, there weren’t even five people in attendance who have done any commercial development. Since the property is already zoned for commercial business, Gardner said it is not up to the public to try to prevent it.
His concern over the process, he said, is that it focused too much on open space and too little on the need to increase the town’s commercial tax base.
“The result of any commercial development on Route 1 will have significant importance to the tax base in Falmouth,” Gardiner said. “Without greater diversity in the tax base, taxes will go up or services will go down.”
But he did say the charette would provide the planning staff with information as it looks to the Comprehensive Plan.
Bill Lunt, of Lunt Road, said he believes charettes work because they give developers some indication of how to proceed. As the process continues, Lunt said he hopes the developers will have a chance to make comments and ask questions before investing a lot of money on designs that may or may not be approved.
Although CDC Chairwoman Bonny Rodden had hoped for better attendance, she said she thought the charette captured a variety of interests and opinions in a polite and orderly fashion.
After the results are compiled, most likely by the first of the new year, they will be studied by both the town and developers. And town officials say there will be further public discussion, perhaps not in another charette but in a forum setting.
“It’s clear it’s a big, important issue to the town that will require significant additional discussion,” Holtwijk said.
Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or firstname.lastname@example.org.