Bangor In Focus

Urban Renewal

The old City Hall, as it appeared at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets before Urban Renewal prompted its destruction.
The Great Fire of 1911 may have changed Bangor's early business district, but the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s robbed the city of its regained historic character.

In June 1964, residents of the Queen City narrowly approved a measure that allowed the city to secure $5.5 million in federal money to wipe out the "slums" some said had invaded the downtown business district.

Urban Renewal's goal was reasonable: to clean up the downtown by tearing down decrepit buildings in favor of constructing modern buildings. The project's supporters argued the older buildings, a lot of which belonged to wholesalers, were making the city less appealing and dragging property-tax revenue down. New, more attractive, buildings would invite new businesses and higher property taxes from those businesses, decreasing the average taxpayer's burden.

To sway voters, the project's supporters produced slick brochures and booklets showing the bad-looking buildings of the downtown area alongside architects' renderings of what the "new" downtown could look like. Plans involved building a large hotel in the center of downtown, narrowing the Kenduskeag Stream through the business district, and even building pedestrian plazas over the stream.

The project also offered the city a chance to take over the original federal building at the corner of Harlow and Center streets and turn it into a new City Hall. The City Hall at the corner of Hammond and Columbia streets was no longer large enough and there was no room to expand. The federal government would construct a larger building for itself farther down Harlow Street because it, too, needed more space.

Under the federal government's Urban Renewal plan to cities, Bangor would have to pay only 25 percent of the renewal costs. The city convinced the government to consider construction of the Kenduskeag Plaza parking lot, which cost $1.5 million, to meet the 25 percent requirement. But Bangor voters had until October 1964 to approve Urban Renewal or the city would lose the $1.5 million credit.

Downtown merchant Howard Segal opposed the plan, calling it "socialistic."

What price for progress? After the federal government gave the city the old federal building for the new City Hall, Bangor razed the old City Hall in favor of a two-level parking garage.

"Unfortunately, the people who sincerely want to strengthen their community are drawn almost inevitably to programs that actually undermine and kill the community instead," Segal said in a written statement. "Small merchants, providing unique services or products, are uprooted. They may even be excluded from the planned new business district because the planner doubts their usefulness in his neat, uncluttered scheme. Genuine diversity is thus lost; but business districts require diversity to live."

It is not moral for the government to seize property and destroy it simply because the property does not fit the city's vision, Segal said. Businesses that don't maintain their property will lose business and be forced out naturally, he said.

Another objector, Mrs. Edward Knowles, wrote: "When the right of eminent domain is used to make way for a long stretch of highway or railroad, you can see logic. But when it displaces established businesses to make room for fictitious retail business that may never materialize, it is a misuse of power."

In the end, Urban Renewal did neaten the Kenduskeag Stream's path through downtown. But it also robbed the city of older buildings that had more character than the structures that replaced them.

Originally, Urban Renewal planners wanted to demolish the Wheelwright Block, built in 1859, in the name of progress. The plan fell through and the building continues to stand at the center of downtown Bangor as a focal point.

Union Station, at the end of Exchange Street, gave way to a small strip mall totally devoid of any architectural style. Many residents of eastern Maine from Union Station's era recall the building's majestic clock tower and consider Urban Renewal to be the biggest mistake Bangor has ever done to itself.

The destruction of City Hall, with its highly visible clock tower in the center of downtown, in favor of a two-level parking garage is other evidence of the project's mistakes, as is the destruction of the Bijou Theatre on Exchange Street. The Bijou saw several popular national acts in its days as a stage theater and was considered a good place to catch a movie when it became a cinema.

Few of the projects the Urban Renewal supporters envisioned came true. Plans to destroy West Market Square fell through. No hotel was built and many small businesses collapsed after being forced to move in favor of parking lots. The popularity of strip malls on the downtown's perimeter along with the Airport Mall's opening miles from the city on Union Street in the early 1970s sparked a decline in downtown business. The business district took another hit in 1978, when the Bangor Mall opened in a former cow pasture on Stillwater Avenue. Sears moved out from downtown and relocated at the new mall and Freese's, which had been the largest department store in Maine at one time, closed, leaving its six-story building virtually abandoned.

1995-2012, Ryan R. Robbins. All rights reserved.

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