This sidewalk is definitely going somewhere

By Alan Manoian, Bridgton Director of Economic and Community Development

There is no greater guardian of personal and economic freedom than a well-designed and solidly built American downtown sidewalk. The right and blessing of personal mobility, to independently move about and circulate where you wish to go, free of poorly designed obstacles and potential threats to one’s personal safety is the foundation of American social cohesion, cultural dynamism, and economic opportunity. The ability for one to move about their hometown freely and safely is the stuff of independence.

The new Depot Street sidewalk will serve to remove the obstacles that have seemingly restricted this potentially great downtown street from offering little more than a relatively desolate, harsh, confusing, pedestrian-unfriendly, asphalt covered pass-through. Perhaps this explains why certain folks in Bridgton have come to label our new Depot Street sidewalk as the “sidewalk to nowhere.” They apparently and understandably see Depot Street as it is today as being “nowhere.” What they are really saying is “You would have to be crazy to enjoy walking around Depot Street.” The days of Depot Street being valued as “nowhere” will soon be passing into history. Depot Street is destined to be one of the most important, appealing and profitable “somewhere(s)” in downtown Bridgton.

Sidewalks speak of prosperity

The epic sidewalk building eras in Bridgton consistently heralded economic expansion and times of prosperity. The first sidewalks in downtown Bridgton were built in 1877. They were basically four-foot wide elevated wooden walkways connecting the important commercial buildings along Main Street. The 1870s and 1880s were the most prosperous manufacturing and commercial building decades of Bridgton’s long history. Sidewalks in 1877 meant then what they mean today; more mobility and convenience, more customers, more business and business expansion, more visitors and more economic growth.

The so-called “permanent” downtown sidewalks of concrete were built in 1907; still four feet wide. The years just before and during World War I were the boom years for Bridgton with her industrial manufacturing complex going full steam, the Bridgton & Saco River Railroad running at full profitability, and with the summer tourist/summer camp economy coming into its own with the emergence of automobiles of the wealthy city visitors filling Bridgton’s streets and country roads. Sidewalks have always been associated with prosperity and new investment.

The 1980s proved to be years of unprecedented residential construction growth in Bridgton, and downtown Bridgton was ready to symbolize this new era of opportunity and growth. In 1987 the Downtown Revitalization Committee fulfilled the sidewalk legacy by constructing new Main Street sidewalks of concrete with red brick trim from one end of downtown to the other. This new sidewalk system proved to be the critical asset in building a renewed sense of pride and outstanding potential for the future of downtown Bridgton.

Here is our time

And now here is our time, 2010 in downtown Bridgton. With a 133-year living legacy of building sidewalks to advance economic prosperity and social cohesion, we now begin our work on connecting and preparing our downtown side-streets for new development and investment, more independent mobility, more people on our sidewalks, more enterprise and new buildings (residential and commercial), more customers and visitors, more great streets and destination places, and more freedom.

The new Depot Street sidewalk serves Bridgton in the following ways:

• First, the intersection of Main Street and Lower Depot Street has become a very dangerous location for both pedestrians and motorists. Because there is no clear street definition, no designated on-street parking, and no clear visual boundaries between the asphalt on the street traffic lanes and private parking lots on each side of the street, cars move at a dangerously high rate of speed. Where the street begins/ends or the parking lots begin/end, no one knows, so it’s seen as either all one big street-like parking lot, or one parking lot-like street. Because there are no defined curb cuts or vehicular access/egress lanes for both the Potter Building and Dinan’s Discount Building (the old A&P Supermarket) as they address Depot Street, cars and delivery trucks are pulling out or pulling in from these commercial properties (best termed as intersecting) with Depot Street from every angle and travel-line imaginable; it’s chaos (I have stood there and observed this hazardous situation countless times).

To add to this dangerous situation cars more often than not “turn in” or “whip in” hard and fast to Depot Street from Main Street and come head-on with this chaotic intersecting spectacle on Depot Street everyday. Now add to the mix folks that are parking at the Dinan’s Discount parking lot to go to Ricky’s Diner. They park at Dinan’s parking lot often with the head of car/truck facing Depot Street. They get out of their vehicle and immediately start to walk across Depot Street to Ricky’s. As they are walking across Depot Street other folks leaving the Dinan’s parking lot are pulling their car/truck out straight into Depot Street, and at that moment a car is “turning hard and fast” into Depot Street from Main Street. So, at that moment we have a near collision between a vehicle pulling out into Depot Street (could be at any point along the parking lot/street), a person’s walking across Depot Street, and a car/truck entering Depot Street from Main Street. I have seen it a hundred times, and it is totally unnecessary and easily fixed with a basic sidewalk.

Proper on-street parking

• Second, the new Depot Street sidewalk will provide a clear and solid edge for the introduction of proper on-street parking. As we work hard to attract more business into the too-long empty commercial buildings of Pondicherry Square, we must do all we can to provide more convenient and comfortable parking for our businesses and customers. Also, the on-street parking of cars/trucks will serve to “calm” traffic and speed on Depot Street, and act as a critical “buffer” between people walking, and someday shopping and sidewalk café-ing, on Depot Street and the cars/trucks traveling on the street. When our valued customers get out of their cars on Depot Street, they will be respected with a comfortable and dignified sidewalk to their downtown destinations, and not having to fight their way past harsh broken asphalt, darting cars, and pooled water and ice of the vehicular roadway.

• Third, the new Depot Street sidewalk will open the Depot Street district to may user groups. Depot Street is the address of many of downtown Bridgton’s best businesses and professional services. Warren’s Florist has one of the best window displays and the among highest quality merchandise in our downtown. Just Love Life Massage in the Potter Building offers world-class client services and serves a most impressive clientele from throughout the Bridgton region. This portion of Depot Street today functionally serves only the motorist, and at that, not very well (remember the “You would have to be crazy to enjoy walking around Depot Street” comment). A well-designed sidewalk wonderfully and functionally opens the street to a variety of business and pedestrian uses. With a sidewalk, new buildings can be built up to the sidewalk line with great display windows and can effectively attract sidewalk shoppers, in addition to motorists, and can expand customer base. A business can set up some attractive sidewalk displays of merchandise, a new restaurant can set up a intimate little sidewalk café, some businesses might have local musicians performing on the sidewalk in front of their shop to attract more customers and offer a great visitors experience. Sidewalks provide for spontaneous meetings and encounters. Also, with a proper sidewalk and buildings built up to the sidewalk line, highly effective and appropriate projecting and wall signage can be affixed to the building, so that large high-speed auto-oriented portable flashing signs would not be necessary to attract customers in downtown Bridgton.

That ‘Somewhere’ is the waterfront

• Finally, the new Depot Street sidewalk is an important sidewalk link to “somewhere.” That “somewhere” is the magnificent Stevens Brook waterfront and the future redeveloped site of the Bridgton Memorial School. Go to Google Earth or look at a map of this district at the town office. It is no wonder that Stevens Brook as an attractive waterway was shunned, except for the production of power, most of the 19th and 20th century; up until 1983 it was an open sewer. In 2010 Stevens Brook presents itself as the single most important and valuable economic development asset in Downtown Bridgton. Our modest Depot Street sidewalk will one day connect Main Street and Depot Street with a world-class downtown Bridgton Riverfront Promenade. The Promenade will begin at the Portland Road Bridge, run along both sides of Stevens Brook, will connect to the waterside Band Stand, the new development at the Bridgton Memorial School site, the Bob Dunning Memorial Bridge and Pondicherry Park, and will ultimately connect to Main Street at Tannery Bridge alongside the Magic Lantern Theatre. The Promenade will be the destination for grand public events and festivals, riverside dining and outdoor cafes, countless new retail shops, new in-town residential buildings, a venue for new public art and sculpture, summertime concerts and performances, a cultural focal point for community gathering and people-watching, a heritage and historic tourism attraction, a place to exercise and have a quiet moment in the heart of the town, and truly a place that will showcase Bridgton’s highest and best aspirations.

So, our modest little new sidewalk on Depot Street is really going to do good work for the future of our beloved Downtown Bridgton. Remember sidewalks are the guardians of freedom; when Americans can move about freely we really make things happen!

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