Friday, December 6, 2013
Transportation has defined Augusta since its inception. First, the Kennebec River brought the Native Americans to the head-of-tide at Cushnoc, followed by a trading post and later Fort Western.
Now called Augusta, the site later was selected as the location for a U.S. arsenal and finally became Maine's capital. Roads and railroads soon followed. The river's power led to a dam and the building of mills that brought thousands of workers to the area. Roads and railroads were needed.
Augusta became a diverse community and home to immigrants, as well as to lawmakers, lobbyists and captains of industry.
By the mid-20th century, the roads and streets changed the city in unplanned-for ways. For example, Western Avenue, which had been lined with large estates and mansions, began in the 1950s its conversion to a strip filled with shopping centers and fast-food restaurants.
The 20-year evolution, spurred on by a lack of planning, has created what we see today. Later, when Interstate 95 was extended north of Augusta, beyond the turnpike's end, the city took advantage of the new exit on Route 27 to build the Augusta Civic Center to promote development in that part of the city. It worked, resulting in the relocation of the University of Maine at Augusta and the creation of the Marketplace at Augusta, along what is now called Civic Center Drive.
In 2004, Cushnoc Crossing, or "the third bridge," was completed to divert overweight truck traffic bound for points north and east away from Western Avenue. This bridge has facilitated the construction of a new regional hospital on Old Belgrade Road, where farms once existed and which was a rural residential area behind the Marketplace.
The new MaineGeneral Medical Center likely will cause drastic changes to this neighborhood, as well as the eastside neighborhoods on Riverside Drive and North Belfast Avenue.
Transportation is again leading to change, and roadways once more will define Augusta. In order to prevent the undesirable changes such as those that occurred along Western Avenue, the city must act now to protect property values in the areas to be affected by today's development.
I have some suggestions that I believe might help alleviate some of the drastic changes to come.
I believe that Western Avenue needs to be connected to Civic Center Drive by the creation of a new corridor that can accommodate new development. This corridor could be created by connecting Leighton Road to Whitten Road, thereby making a four-corner intersection at Western Avenue where the southbound exit from I-95 is now located.
The I-95 exit could be moved to the current Leighton Road site of the Maine Department of Transportation paint shop. A southbound on-ramp could even be added at the same spot.
The MDOT has just announced plans to move its Capitol Street facility to a site at the north end of Leighton Road. Part of the move includes consolidating the paint shop into this new facility. The timing is perfect for making this change and to move the exit at the same time.
Furthermore, Leighton Road also could be extended beyond Civic Center Drive to the new MaineGeneral Medical Center site by making a new four-corner intersection at Civic Center Drive and then another one at the entrance to the new hospital, thereby causing Western Avenue to reach all the way to Route 3 and the third bridge.
This loop road would create a new commercial corridor around the north, west and east sides of Augusta. Leighton Road could be rezoned as commercial, thereby opening up land for development and increasing the value of the property. Residents could sell their homes and properties at a higher value, instead of having to deal with increased traffic counts for years without the ability to cash out, and relocate to a quieter, residential neighborhood.
If it is inevitable that an area will become commercialized, then wishing won't stop it from happening. Now is the time to embrace the change that is coming and to plan for it.
Paul Lessard, a resident of Belgrade since 2006, is a native of Augusta where he lived for 50 years. A former Maine real estate broker, Lessard is a former member of the Augusta Zoning Board and the Old Fort Western Board of Trustees, and a past president and coach of the Augusta North Little League.