BRUNSWICK — Traffic flow, pedestrian safety and business attraction have become the focal points of a committee hoping to create a new guiding document for Brunswick’s downtown.
So far, concrete answers to those familiar problems have been complex, if not elusive.
For nearly a year, the Downtown Master Plan Committee has been meeting to remedy what many believe are significant impediments to a viable downtown. Among those hurdles are traffic patterns that Maine Street merchants have repeatedly claimed hide their businesses from would-be customers.
The accessibility of Maine Street and Pleasant Street has long been a point of contention for downtown merchants. But now, with the appearance of empty storefronts coinciding with the 2011 closure of Brunswick Naval Air Station and an economic downturn, those issues have taken on a new sense of urgency.
Last year the Town Council commissioned the Downtown Master Plan Committee to begin reviewing those and other issues, and to draft a plan to help address them. There are 11 citizens on the committee and several more on the group’s five subcommittees, each of which is responsible for tackling a major issue: Traffic and pedestrian movement, business attraction, visual aesthetics, housing and finance.
Councilor Margo Knight, the committee chairwoman, said the membership represents a strong cross-section of stakeholders, including business leaders, public safety and public works employees, town staff and bicycle and pedestrian advocates.
The diversity has yet to produce a clear vision, or a specific area of focus. The committee elected not to define the downtown while drafting the plan.
While an undefined study area could trigger a sprawl of ideas, Knight said she still hopes the committee will have completed a draft of the plan by fall.
In the meantime, the group will have to balance the goals its wants to achieve now with the ones that make sense in the future.
“We have folks on the committee who want to accomplish things right now, which is good,” Knight said. “But we also have to come up with a plan that works 10 years from now.”
In addition to crafting a unified plan among potentially divergent stakeholders, the committee must also navigate alongside parallel planning efforts of the Maine Department of Transportation and the Midcoast Regional Redevelopment Authority, the organization implementing the reuse plan for BNAS.
Last year MDOT secured a $1 million planning study to review traffic issues that could affect the civilian reuse of the base, including the Pleasant Street-Mill Street intersection, Route 1 access and the Route 196 connector. Changes to all three areas will undoubtedly impact downtown traffic flow.
The downtown committee has been in contact with MDOT and MRRA about traffic movement, but it’s unclear how the three entities will settle on agreeable solutions. Unlike MRRA and MDOT, the downtown committee’s research is anecdotal because it’s unfunded.
Knight acknowledged the difficulties of drafting a plan without concrete data, and said she hopes the town would soon invest in an origin-destination study.
“We need a study that puts someone at the (Mill Street-Pleasant Street intersection) and asks motorists where they’re going and why,” Knight said.
Until then, she added, the committee is reliant on evidence that satisfies the requirement for conventional wisdom, but may not be entirely accurate.
According to Knight, traffic and pedestrian movement has been a major discussion for the committee, particularly creating a left turn onto Maine Street from Route 1 south and reducing the length of crosswalks on Maine Street with so-called bump-outs. There have also been discussions about the merits of restoring two-way traffic to inner Pleasant Street.
During the committee’s June 4 meeting, member Emily Swan said the goal is to bring people safely downtown and to help those that don’t want to be there get where they’re going.
Parking and the speed of traffic has also been a concern on Maine Street.
The committee is also reviewing ways to market the downtown and to create incentives for businesses hoping to locate there. Earlier this year the committee held a workshop on creating a blanket Tax Increment Financing district for the downtown area.
The committee typically meets the first and third Thursdays of every month. However, the scheduled July 16 meeting has been cancelled.