Our Future is Now | My Guest Column to the Capital Weekly

Significant changes along a two-mile stretch of the Kennebec River have created a unique opportunity for the city of Augusta. Because of these developments, our community finds itself in a pivotal, once-in-a-lifetime situation on the eastside riverfront. There are some, however, who may say this is more of an overwhelming challenge.

I would disagree.

I strongly believe “our future is now” in addressing new opportunities at the inactive Kennebec Arsenal complex; the soon-be-vacant MaineGeneral campus; and the ready for redevelopment industrial brownfield at the American Tissue Mill site. Mix in residential neighborhoods, small retail shops, offices, city and state government buildings, parks and nature trails, and Old Fort Western and you get the full picture of the eastside riverfront.

Because new uses and new development along this section will most likely set the tone and image for the foreseeable future of Augusta’s eastside, I applaud the decision of former Mayor Roger Katz to create the Eastside Planning Committee. The committee was tasked to study and recommend how the city should invest, promote, and regulate land uses along the eastside riverfront of the Kennebec River. I was honored to serve as its chairman.

Since October 2010, the EPC hosted site visits, public hearings and strategy sessions to compile as much information as possible for its report. Throughout the process, the EPC identified the different challenges and made a concerted effort to turn them in to opportunities.

It is clear the Augusta community would like to see the historic Kennebec Arsenal succeed and become a vibrant destination; we also recognize there is an opportunity for positive redevelopment on the MaineGeneral property and the riverfront parking lots; we know the city snow dump probably should not be located on the waterfront and the same with the recycling yard; and we would like to turn what was once an industrial use at American Tissue Mill site into a thriving destination for the people and visitors of Augusta to enjoy and be proud of. I think the EPC report reinforces this vision. The following is a summary:

Consistent Zoning. Right now there are five different planning zones on the eastside riverfront ranging from Industrial, Medium Density Residential, Local Business, Kennebec Business, and Institutional/Business/Professional. The EPC believes the creation of just one or two zoning districts will help connect the different locations into a larger image we would like to see for the heart of the city. The EPC also encourages specific attention to building design standards on historic preservation.

American Tissue Mill Site. To start, the EPC suggests a new name to identify the site for marketing purposes. The “former American Tissue Mill site” just does not sound sexy or appealing for redevelopment. The EPC also recommends greater vehicle and pedestrian access to the site through roadway improvements at Locke, Linden, and Maple Streets. Additionally, the EPC believes that the city should explore the possible use of the existing rail trestle across the Kennebec River for a pedestrian footbridge to connect to the downtown region. Overall, the EPC is sensitive to remaining flexible at this site to accommodate any developer interest or future uses.

Metal Recycling Yard. To improve the connection of the American Tissue Mill site to the rest of the eastside and downtown region, the EPC encourages the city to continue working with the current owner of the metal recycling yard for a new location. This is the only industrial use remaining along the eastside riverfront, and the owner has expressed a willingness to move, but relies on specific transportation needs such as rail access. The EPC also discussed the possibility of relocating the business to the northern end of the American Tissue Mill site. The EPC understands this move would likely affect the scenery from Cushnoc Crossing Bridge; however it would allow for greater redevelopment options on the remaining mill site and provide a seamless connection to the rest of the eastside and downtown.

MaineGeneral Property. Possible redevelopment at this location may prove difficult due to the purpose-built nature of the hospital building and the compatibility to the adjacent neighborhood. Management officials from MaineGeneral were part of the EPC and they continue to show a strong willingness to work with the city for future reuse of the properties. Demolition was considered as well. The parking lots along the riverfront hold great value for developer interest. The EPC would like to see improved access to the riverfront and suggests creating a promenade from Arsenal Street to the river.

City Snow Dump. For years, this has been an issue of concern in Augusta. The EPC believes the time is right for relocation of the city’s riverfront snow dump located next to the eastside boat landing. There are other smaller locations that could serve as a snow dump and should be pursued.

Kennebec Arsenal Complex. The property is currently in possession of a private developer. However, there has been little action in the way of redevelopment since the state of Maine transferred the property. As a result, the historical complex has fallen into significant disrepair. The EPC is extremely concerned with the future of this site and recommends that they city continue working with the state to encourage the owner to perform or return the property to the state so another developer can be found.

Pedestrian Access. Throughout the report, the EPC found value in improving access to  Kennebec River for recreational and pedestrian use. The EPC suggests creating a walking loop with pedestrian-friendly foot bridges to connect both sides of the river. People want to enjoy the river’s beauty and the outdoors and the EPC would like to enhance these opportunities.

The entire report can be viewed online at augustamatters.com.

I am proud of the committee’s work and recognize that many of the recommendations may take some time, money, and resources. Nonetheless, I believe Augusta faces a once-in-a-lifetime situation. Now it is our chance to influence where we want to see the future of the eastside riverfront and it is important that we embrace this opportunity.

I believe this report is just the start of what is happening in the transformational journey of Augusta’s eastside riverfront. I hope it will create a spark for new opportunities and development, which is why I believe “our future is now.”

Darek Grant is Augusta’s Ward 2 city councilor and served as chairman of the Eastside Planning Committee.

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