Friday, March 18, 2016

The new vision for North Windham - By Walter Lunt

An ambitious project, five years in the making, aimed at transforming Windham’s bustling commercial strip between River Road and White’s Bridge Road intersections may soon begin a long trip toward reality. Planners have initiated a plan to improve safety in the Boody’s Corner area with the creation of crosswalks and count-down pedestrian signals. In addition, sidewalks would be installed on the north side of Route 35 from the intersection to Basin Road. A small but definitive step to what local officials hope will someday be the ultimate alternative to an auto-centric commercial center. The future, they say, will be “a historic style grid creating a fabric of mixed uses and street types…east and west of the transportation corridor…(which) promotes economic development, safety and sense of place.
Decades of complaints about traffic congestion and lack of aesthetic appeal in the commercial district of North Windham have been as numerous as the hamburgers and household goods sold daily along the strip. Long gone are the days of a single traffic light at Boody’s Store (intersection 35/115), a village style mix of locally owned stores, single family homes and farms and a thru-fare framed by overhanging elm trees. Since the 1960s, numerous studies have been recommended, even implemented, to change and improve the area. Still, dissatisfaction lingers.

Now a bold and optimistic project, idling since 2011, is beginning to take shape. Town planners and officials of T.Y. Lin Engineers of Falmouth met with residents and stakeholders last week to discuss the first steps toward implementation of the North Windham 21st Century Downtown Plan. 

T.Y. Lin senior associate Thomas Errico presented slides and sought feedback from the gathering of several dozen at Smitty’s Cinema in North Windham. The plan, a comprehensive vision for the future of the area, seeks to guide growth and change through the promotion of “quality of place.” Not just another “corridor study” that focuses on traffic movement, the master plan would expand street networks surrounding the commercial core, incubate economic development and housing opportunities, landscape esplanades and access to open space.

A key concept of the plan is the promotion of Complete Streets, designed to provide safe and comfortable travel for pedestrians, bicyclists and public transportation riders as well as cars. On-street parking is envisioned on lateral streets. Crosswalks with count-down signals would be installed at all intersections. Intermittent raised medians installed on Roosevelt Trail would be designed to improve driveway access. And collaboration with local businesses is recommended to modify driveways deemed unsafe or unneeded. Shared drives created by fewer curb cuts will be encouraged. In addition, improved traffic signal phasing is anticipated to reduce delays. The plan also acknowledges the need for a public sewer system, a move now underway by a committee of Windham public officials and local residents.

The 21st Century plan also recommends the inclusion of so-called “in-fill” development.  Portions of existing parking lots and streets parallel to the commercial corridor, such as Manchester Drive, could absorb future growth through the Complete Streets model. Residential and mixed use development would be encouraged on the periphery of the commercial district. According to the master plan, “…transportation options, land use and architecture (can) balance the needs of “to,” “thru,” and “local” modes and types of travel (creating) a gateway to the Lakes Region as well as the heart to a vibrant town center.”

Building form under the master plan would become more consistent. New buildings would be constructed closer to the road-way and possess a certain character unlike that of typical chain store and big box structures. The report states “Buildings should act as ‘urban architecture,’ framing the public realm and reinforcing the new and retrofitted Complete Streets.”

The North Windham 21st Century Downtown project received the prestigious Plan of the Year Award from the Maine Association of Planners in 2014. It was approved as official town planning policy by the Windham Town Council in 2013. officials and T.Y. Lin predict it will be many years before 21st Century approaches complete reality because components of the plan will be introduced only as future development occurs. The new sidewalk and crosswalk construction at Boody’s Corner is dependent on a grant application now before the Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System (PACTS). Preliminary engineering is expected to be completed this spring.

Planners said the dramatic transformation envisioned under 21st Century will have to happen in conjunction with future development and with the formulation of short and long term goals. Revisions to the Windham Comprehensive Plan and to land use ordinances will guide its implementation. Funding, over time, could come from a variety of sources including capital improvement budgets, tax increment financing, bonding, impact fees and grants.

“We are not trying to replicate the Old Port,” said town planner Ben Smith. “North Windham is very valuable to our community and we can do better. It needs to be more healthy, enjoyable and more residential.”


Artist’s rendering comparing access drive to WalMart (McDonald’s on right) before and after implementation of 21st Century plan.

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