Can a used-up gravel pit become a bustling town center?
By Greta Weber
Photographs Courtesy of Waterstone Properties
[dropcap letter=”W”]hen a developer approached Westbrook’s city council last year with a grand plan to convert an abandoned quarry next to I-95 into a $600 million real-estate project, council members couldn’t help but feel skeptical. They’d been burned before, in 2010, by another developer who pitched a similarly ambitious project but never delivered on it.
The recent proposal called for a 100-acre mixed-use development. Retail space for an assortment of big names and boutiques would grow the city’s tax base. And some 700 apartment units would help to alleviate the housing crunch in greater Portland while drawing people to Westbrook. But was it feasible? Then-councilwoman Lynda Adams had her doubts. “You don’t know that they’re going to live up to their promises,” she says.
This spring, though, Adams resigned from the council and started consulting for the Massachusetts-based developer, Waterstone Properties, helping her new client navigate local permitting processes. (The move is not part of the usual politics–lobbying revolving door, she insists. She says she earnestly believes the plan will be a boon for her city.) Josh Levy, one the firm’s principals, is leading the project, and his team appears to have turned the community’s skepticism into unbridled support. Such a massive undertaking usually stirs up opposition, but in this case, there are seemingly no habitats to degrade (quarrying already did that), no neighbors to annoy with increased traffic (surrounding blocks feature a Kohl’s, car dealerships, and fast-food joints), and no prior residents to displace.
The goal is for the development to imitate a town center, meshing residential, commercial, and recreational spaces. It’s part apartment complex, part shopping mall, part neighborhood. Westbrook already has a downtown a few miles away — a classic-looking main drag with a handful of low-key shops and eateries, surrounded by quiet side streets with single-family homes — but this new mode of development is increasingly common near booming cities around the country. The project, dubbed Rock Row, is the first of its kind in Maine. “The goal is that you could live on-site and not need a car,” Levy says. “You’ve got everything right there at your front door.”
Levy aims to build Rock Row in phases over the next five to seven years. The first phase is an outdoor concert venue, the Maine Savings Pavilion, with an 8,200-person capacity. As of reporting in early May, the future amphitheater was still just a big patch of dirt, but concert organizers already booked acts ranging from Buddy Guy to Fitz and the Tantrums to Alice Cooper for this summer. The second phase, targeted for completion by next spring, will bring a Market Basket grocery store and a Starbucks. Apartments are due to start renting the following year. Eventually, the site will include restaurants, a movie theater, and a beer and food hall full of local vendors. Waterstone would like to add a medical campus as well.
Critics of such town-center developments often scoff at the unmistakable air of consumerism — retail with a captive supply of customers. Places like Rock Row “can be very artificial, and that concerns me,” acknowledges Fred Yalouris, the project’s design director. To keep the development from feeling like an ersatz Old Port and to give it a character of its own, Yalouris decided to emphasize the site’s landscape and history, using the quarry as a visual centerpiece. He’d like for the quarry to become a recreational centerpiece too — his renderings show kayakers paddling on the water on a bright day, past a brick boathouse with patio seating shaded by trees, but those elements are still purely hypothetical. Levy has his own visions for the quarry: an annual fishing derby in the summer, pond hockey tournaments in the winter. “[The town] has tried to hide it for the last decade,” he says. “We’re trying to make it an amenity.”
Levy wants Rock Row to feel like a self-contained community, but he doesn’t want it to feel isolated, hedged in as it is by box stores and highway. To that end, he’s working with Greater Portland Metro to connect bus routes to the site and with Portland Trails to plug Rock Row into its network of paths that run along the Fore River, through Baxter Woods and Back Cove, and all the way out to the Eastern and Western promenades.
Westbrook director of economic development Daniel Stevenson thinks Rock Row could serve as a model for future development in greater Portland, although he doesn’t expect to see new suburban town centers proliferate here the way they have in areas around other growing metros, like Washington, D.C., and Austin, Texas. Greater Portland is thriving, he says, but it’s still a relatively small market — probably best to take it one new town center at a time.
All in all, Stevenson adds, he much prefers this style of development to the other options. Before Waterstone got involved, he points out, the old quarry was slated to host a giant parking lot, a Walmart Supercenter, and a Hobby Lobby.