New Auburn’s Village Center Renaissance

By Ethan Boxer-Macomber

As advocates of Smart Growth, we are all encouraged and delighted by the current national trend toward redirection of resources to traditional city and town centers abandoned and neglected over 60 years of urban flight and suburban proliferation.  This reinvestment trend is readily apparent in Maine cities such as Bangor, Lewiston, Portland and Biddeford and in smaller service center communities from Presque Isle to Rockland to Standish.  The positive benefits of community reinvestment in Maine are being felt immediately as local economies are strengthened along community health, identity, connectivity, and pride.

Among the newest Maine community centers to join the renaissance is the New Auburn Neighborhood in the City of Auburn.

The area we now know as New Auburn was originally settled by Native Americans for its ideal location of the confluence of two rivers. European settlement later resulted in a stand alone municipality know first as Pejepscot and later as Danville, Maine. Danville quickly grew around the industrial mills of the shoe industry and an influx of French Canadian immigrant families.

In 1867, the municipality of Danville was annexed to the City of Auburn and thus become known as “New Auburn”. However, despite being annexed and renamed 150 years ago, New Auburn’s strong sense of history and place and its physical separation from the rest of Auburn by the Little Androscoggin River have maintained a strong individual community identity to this day.

Learn how communities can renew their spark, connect with their rivers, and reinvent themselves at the 2017 GrowSmart Maine Summit, October 18th, Dana Warp Mill, Westbrook

In 1933, New Auburn suffered a tremendous urban fire that destroyed 249 structures and left over 400 families and over 2,000 individuals homeless. That tragedy and the destruction it brought, started and ended in the span of a single day. While New Auburn was quickly rebuilt after the fire, it went on to suffer another, slower burning threat as municipal and private sector investment in the post-war era was drawn away from traditional community centers and out toward residential and commercial development in newer, more suburban parts of the City. Major flooding in 1937 and 1989 damaged significant areas of lower New Auburn as well.  Like so many Maine community centers, New Auburn’s center was left in a relative state of abandonment and neglect. 

Regrettably, New Auburn Center, in its current form, turns its back to the river, fronts its buildings with surface parking lots and places the demands of motor vehicular circulation and parking above those of vulnerable users such as cyclists and pedestrians. This is a pattern all too familiar where community centers, in an effort to survive suburbanization, evolved to emulate suburban strip mall development.

Help’s on the Way!

In 2010, responding to community demands, Auburn’s Comprehensive Plan came to include a New Auburn Master Plan. The years that have followed have seen a number of new City policies in support of the redevelopment of New Auburn and other Auburn centers.  These include new form-based codes and special allowances for the adaptive reuse of historic structures.

Most recently (2014), the City, with technical support from private consultants and designers, facilitated a two-year public engagement process culminating in the creation and adoption of the New Auburn Village Center Study. VHB Engineers and Sam Coplon Landscape Architects were hired in 2016 to finalize the Village Center Plan by finalizing the final design and creating construction plans and cost estimates.  Their work is almost complete.

The New Auburn Village Center Study is a highly refined and actionable plan for the redevelopment of New Auburn’s riverfront center. The plan is highly comprehensive and loaded with big, exciting ideas. Among other things the plan:

  • Elevates significant portions of the Center above the 100 year flood plain
  • Creates a new “Riverway Road”; a single-loaded village corridor that maintains open views of the river across a public park and riverfront greenway.
  • Provisions for programmable space for community events such as festivals and farmers’ markets.
  • Adheres to Traditional / Smart Growth/Form Based Code design principles; Human-scaled design, walkable, buildings fronting streets and parking sited to the rear.
  • Calms through traffic on Mill Street and enhances pedestrian amenities for safety and comfort of all users.
  • Includes ADA accessible pathways to the riverfront.

Doug Greene, Urban Development Coordinator for the City of Auburn, explains that the City of Auburn is working diligently to, “…open up new opportunities for mixed-use development; a variety of housing and commercial spaces in a village setting”.  Indeed, the City is. Already the City of Auburn has begun strategically acquiring properties in New Auburn Center in furtherance of the master plan goals. Funding for the first Phase of construction for 2018, including the creation of the riverfront park and greenway and grading of the Riverway Road, has been secured through a combination of Municipal Tax Increment (TIF) and Bond Financing, City Capital Improvement (CIP) funding, and a generous grant from the Northern Borders Regional Commission.

This attention to the New Auburn Village Center, the new Form Based Code and Adaptive Reuse Ordinance is expected to stimulate further investment locally and regionally.

“We are seeing a lot of excitement about  the plan and expect it to be a stimulus to other parts of New Auburn and the Greater Lewiston / Auburn area”, says Greene.

Hopefully all of us, from communities across Maine, will study and monitor what’s happening in New Auburn Village Center and consider what new life we can breathe into our respective traditional Maine community centers.

Ethan Boxer-Macomber is the owner of Anew Development and is the GrowSmart Maine Board Vice Chair.

Doug Greene, AICP, RLA; Urban Development Coordinator of Auburn, will be among the presenters at GrowSmart Maine’s 2017 Annual Summit sharing their stories of thoughtful design, leveraging resources, and engaging local people to create more vibrant and livable communities.

Join this and other important discussions at the Summit on October 18th in Downtown Westbrook