Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On Location: Stroudwater Place Workshop

Jason Snyder opened tonight's Planning Board workshop devoted to the proposed Stroudwater Place at 8:10p. Dressed in a smart suit and red tie, the boyish Snyder outlined the history of the parcel of land in question, introduced his development team, and closed by touting the economic benefits of the project. Next up was Jane Thompson, a principal at the Thompson Design Group, who followed Snyder's presentation with a breezy introduction to the firm's previous projects. The featured speaker for the development team, though, was Thompson Design Group's Pratap Talwar.

Talwar, a silver-haired gentleman who speaks Indian-accented English, opened his presentation with poetic meditations about the peculiar contours of Westbrook's topography (he complemented these observations with a photo of an 1879 panaramic view of Cumberland Mills and Saccarappa, which hangs in my office and will be now be viewed in a whole different light). Then he peppered his presentation with photos of historic Westbrook that demonstrated both his emphasis on the slopes of the city, as well its rich civic history (examples of the photos he mined from the Maine Historical Society collection are here, here, here, here, and here). However, Talwar's presentation, which was occasionally interrupted by presentations by the development team's traffic and environmental analysts, droned and simultaneously promised everything and nothing. About eighty minutes after it began, Jason Snyder and Co.'s presentation (thankfully) ended, and the floor was opened up to the public.

I've witnessed a fair share of public comment periods, and this one was by far the best. Public comments generally delve into the hyperbolic and are as repetitive as an assembly line. Moreover, given some of the raw commentary associated with the initial press accounts of the proposed development (see here, here, and here), I was curious about the tone and substance of the arguments that would be thrown about. Tonight's batch of public comments, however, were cool-headed and diverse. Carol Quint of Stroudwater Place (the street, not the unrealized development) began by questioning the project's nomenclature by pointing out the developers' clumsy adoption of the name of an existing street. And Eileen Shutts of Monroe Avenue followed Quint's presentation with a cool analysis of Snyder and Co.'s application for a contract zone, specifically what the application had to say about traffic. Shutts conceded that traffic spilling off the Maine Turnpike (projected by Gorrill-Palmer Consulting Engineers, Inc. to account for 60-65% of the development's total traffic) probably wouldn't affect Westbrook's neighborhoods too much, but she rightly pointed out that traffic coming from the exurbs via Routes 25 and 22 is already snarled; she expressed concern that the project will only exacerbate the problem. Elizabeth Gattine of Stroudwater Street (and wife of City Councilor Drew Gattine) also based her concerns on the firm's application for contract zoning and picked it apart as being too vague. In short, the questions concerning the proposed development dealt mostly with traffic and the concern that the contract zoning the firm seeks may be too flexible to serve the city's best interests. Skeptics, however, were not the only ones in attendance.

City Councilor Michael Foley generally lauded the project and pointed out that the zoning the developers are requesting was, in fact, the type of zoning that had existed in that area in 1989. Ken Lefebvre of Oakland Avenue echoed that sentiment by saying that the 'mixed-use' zoning existed for that parcel even as recently as 2004. Lefebvre also praised the developers for their self-reliance (they have not asked the city for any tax breaks or other financial incentives) and complimented them on their prudence for planning their development in an incremental fashion. Of course, being the former Mayor he is, Lefebvre also wondered about the public service costs associated with the project and lightly questioned the city's utility capacity in relation to a project for this size. But, overall, Lefebvre was optimistic. Former candidate for the City Council, Bill Holmes, talked about the economic benefits the development would provide, while also confirming Mrs. Quint's concern that the name of the development could pose a problem for emergency workers since there is already a street in the city by that name. And former City Councilor Ed Symbol echoed many of the points raised by Foley and Lefebrve, but stressed the fact that the developers were not looking from a handout from the city to propel this project forward.

Overall, it was a good night. The crowd was not so heavy that the overflow seating in an adjacent classroom was required. But the meeting in Room 114 was well-attended. The skeptics of the plan raised very good questions, but also complimented the developers when necessary. And the proponents of the plan presented good arguments, while also granting the skeptics some respect for the questions they raised.

The process promises to be a long one, but the citizens of Westbrook began it on a positive note.

- John C.L. Morgan

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great recap! As a fairly new resident of Westbrook, it's nice to see some in-depth/balanced reporting being done on this issue. Not something one can usually find in the PPH.