Bath's New Urban Pioneers
Will the City of Ships become the City of Condos?
Jim Upham doesn't accept the conventional wisdom. Not all of it, anyway. As Bath's city planner he is paid to figure out what is happening and what will happen in the tidy city of some 9,300 people, and he maintains that what is happening in Bath is different from what has happened in other towns.
"We are not becoming an extension of suburbia," he notes. "We are not like Topsham and Brunswick and Falmouth," where subdivisions and big-box shopping malls have eaten thousands of acres of forest and farmland. Most of the development proposals Bath has seen have focused on the downtown area, and the half-million-dollar apartments they feature hardly fit the starter-home category.
"What we're seeing here is more like Portland," muses Upham, who sees an "urban resurgence" rather than transformation into a suburban bedroom community. Bath is attracting urban pioneers driven from the heights of Munjoy Hill and the redbrick West End who want a compact, walkable, attractive city space on the water. Rather than Gorham's tract-home sprawl, Bath's riverfront is attracting infill development that focuses on long-vacant lots and down-at-the-heels buildings tagged for demolition.
It's an interesting idea, one that intrigues Catherine Davis, a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based preservationist, architect, and landscape designer. Davis' family has roots in Bath that go back generations, deep enough that locals forgive the slight British accent that her education at an English boarding school gave her. Five years ago she wrote a thesis for her degree at Harvard University about a piece of land her family owns on the waterfront, researching its history and plotting out a potential development. Then-city manager John Bubier liked her plan so much he encouraged her to pursue it.
This past winter she floated a proposal to build twenty condominiums on part of the parcel at the north end of Front Street, the city's main downtown thoroughfare. "Bath is a city with lots of undiscovered potential," Davis explains. "It's a full-time place, not a summer community. There's industry here, the schools are great, and the river is a magnet all by itself. It's a city that works; it's not someone else's bedroom community."
The rush to development is also raising caution flags for many residents, with much of the concern focused on a plan by two former city councilors to tear down the waterfront BathPort complex, a downtown building of ground-level commercial spaces and upper-floor apartments, in favor of three condominium buildings called New BathPort. The structures, with condos priced at $500,000 to $800,000, would tower over the retail district and require special approval because they violate the city's height restrictions and comprehensive plan. Opponents have packed zoning board and city council meetings, although the project appears likely to go forward.
"I am very pro-development," explains Amy Leonard, a kitchen designer at the Kennebec Company. "But the reason we have a comprehensive plan is to make sure the city has a unified vision and isn't just looking at one project at a time. This is clearly a poor project, not in keeping with any vision we've seen."
Besides the height issue — "This would set a precedent for creating a wall of condominiums along the river, shutting the public away from the water," Leonard offers — opponents mourn the loss of the current building's nine commercial spaces, which have hosted a successful restaurant, newspaper and insurance offices, and an angling supply store. "This is shrinking the downtown, where space is already so tight new businesses can't move in," notes Leonard, who supports a mix of residential and commercial uses for the site. "People want to live downtown because they want to be close to the action and on the water. You keep the downtown alive by expanding commercial space, not reducing it."
An ambitious, multimillion-dollar condo development just upriver from the downtown on the site of a now-closed sardine cannery appears dead, despite enthusiastic support from the surrounding neighborhood. Portland-based developer Bruce Poliquin got a warm welcome everywhere but the city council chambers for his plan to build forty high-end condominiums. The city is still counting on finding another marine-related business for the land, Upham says.
"I don't think we'll ever have another fish-canning plant there," Upham acknowledges, "but some other water-dependent enterprise, such as a boatbuilder, up there is very possible."
That attitude mystifies Amy Leonard. "Why hold out for a working waterfront dream in a residential district but encourage a residential development [New BathPort] in a commercial area?" she wonders. "This was one of the condo projects that actually made a lot of sense."
The broad, tidal Kennebec dominates Bath's geography. The city is long and narrow, trapped between the ridge above and the water below. Despite its location ten miles from open ocean, it was once a major port important enough to have its own customhouse, which still stands at the top of Front Street. Its shipyards were legendary — in 1909 the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built, the six-masted Wyoming, slid down the ways of a Bath shipyard.
For decades Bath's main claim to prominence has been as the home of Bath Iron Works, the shipbuilding firm that marches along almost a mile of riverfront just south of the downtown. Now a subsidiary of defense conglomerate General Dynamics, the yard employs approximately 5,600 people building destroyers for the U.S. Navy.
Bath is a city of old-fashioned residential neighborhoods filled with substantial homes that date back to the turn of the last century and earlier. North Washington Street is famous for its collection of grand homes built by shipbuilders and ship owners in the city's heyday in the middle and late 1800s. The brick downtown, after losing a number of its old-line family-owned retail stores in the 1980s, has rebounded with a variety of new business, ranging from antique shops to a popular kitchenware store that has expanded into almost a full block next to City Hall. Last year the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Bath as one of America's "Dozen Distinctive Destinations" for its historic and active downtown district and community involvement.
Until recently, though, Bath was a well-kept secret among those who lived in the midcoast region. Its once legendary traffic jams at BIW shift changes combined with a gritty reputation and a Route 1 highway design that emphasized getting through Bath rather than getting to Bath.
That image began changing in the 1990s. The construction of a graceful new bridge across the Kennebec, replacing a narrow, intimidating span, has had the effect of opening up the city from the north and east. Bath has become a service center for towns between Woolwich and Waldoboro that had previously looked to Rockland or Augusta. A new bypass in Topsham that linked Route 1 and Interstate 295 gives the city a more convenient connection to Portland and its northern suburbs.
"I think Bath's location has caught up with itself," muses Andrew Winglass, chairman of the city council and owner, with his wife, Katie, of the popular Mae's Café, named after their youngest child. "Portland is such a boom town, and we're less than thirty-five minutes north with the Kennebec in our front yard and some of the best beaches in this part of Maine twenty minutes away at Popham Beach and Reid State parks."
Winglass says the city is attracting a modest influx of retirees, and he notes that both the 2000 Census and the city's own studies have shown a demographic shift away from Bath's blue-collar origins and toward a broader economic and social range. The fastest-growing age group in town is the forty-five to sixty-five cohort.
That sense that Bath was finally coming into its own was one reason restaurateur John Hall and his business partner, Ed Rogers, decided it was time to do something with their waterfront BathPort property. Their New BathPort project will replace the existing building with twenty-eight high-end condominiums.
Hall's reasoning for building condos instead of more office or commercial space illustrates Bath's strength and its weakness. While the apartments on BathPort's third floor had always rented well, the partners had less success with the office and retail space on the first two floors. The building itself, put up in the early 1970s, had not weathered the years well and needed extensive maintenance.
The Kennebec River is a powerful symbol and attraction for newcomers, and house ads that include the phrase "river view" are surefire attention getters. At the same time, "much of the land along the river is fill," Hall explains. "It's a flood plain. We have to drive more than 180 pilings down forty to fifty feet to bedrock before we can build anything on top of it."
Hall believes the investment is worth it: "There is definitely a market for high-quality residential construction on the waterfront. This is the sort of development that can help keep the downtown alive after five o'clock. If you want people shopping, going to restaurants, involved in the arts, you need a mix of incomes, including the higher-income people who would likely be buying these units."
Hall doesn't believe that his potential buyers will necessarily come from outside the region. "We've already had sixteen or seventeen people inquire about buying condos, and they all live in Bath or the surrounding area," he says. "We have a lot of people who moved to Bath years ago and bought one of those big old houses on upper Washington Street who are older now and want to move to smaller, low-maintenance homes. And naturally they'll sell those homes to younger people who are moving into town."
"If you look at any of the projects that have been proposed so far, the one common element is that they assume the greatest portion of their market is people who already live here but haven't found the modern first-floor living that they want," observes Curt Fish, a local real estate agent who is working on a 120-unit condominium development for the ridgeline above the city's South End. Fish himself estimates optimistically that 80 percent of his potential buyers already live in the area.
Fish considers the Kennebec River an underappreciated resource for Bath. By long tradition, the river was an industrial aspect of the city, polluted and ignored. Even the buildings that line it today more often then not have their backs to the water, and it's been only in recent years that riverfront homeowners have turned their windows and decks toward the Kennebec. It's instructive that Hall's New BathPort project includes the city's first stretch of river walkway.
City planner Upham says the current projects may be just the leading edge of new construction in and around Bath's downtown and riverfront. Upham reports activity around the Coal Pocket, a vacant shore lot that was once the site of the city's coal gasification plant, and the Prawer Block, a nearby warehouse complex once considered as the site for a new hotel. This summer the city is updating and rebuilding the southern end of Washington Street to improve access to the new waterfront park, a boat launch, and the Maine Maritime Museum amid rumors of even more development interest in that part of town.
Upham sees Bath as the anti-suburbia for people who don't want a two-acre lawn and a twenty-minute drive to the supermarket or the nearest restaurant. "Bath's strength is its image as a little urban place," he says. "We're a small city on a big river, and a lot of people are finally realizing we're here."
- By: Jeff Clark