Portsmouth Naval Shipyard is a misnomer — it’s actually in Kittery, on Seavey Island | Down East Magazine

Changing Kittery to Save It

Residents have long enjoyed Kittery's livable, leafy vibe, but some worry that tourists and house hunters are eroding the town's character and pricing out all but the well-heeled. So they've hatched an ambitious plan.

By Will Grunewald
From our May 2021 issue

Buying the Corner Pub was not part of Michael Landgarten’s plan for stepping back from the restaurant business a couple of years ago. At the time, Landgarten had already sold Robert’s Maine Grill, which he opened in 2006, and he was in the process of shopping Bob’s Clam Hut, which he’d owned since 1986. He’d managed to run those two Route 1 mainstays, in Kittery, while providing employees with retirement plans, health insurance, and paid time off — rarities in the service industry — and the endless hustle eventually wore him out. But when the Corner Pub’s longtime owners closed their bar, he felt obliged to bring it back.

The Corner Pub is in Kittery’s treed, brick-sidewalked downtown, the Foreside, away from the seasonal four-lane hoopla of Route 1. It’s a holdover from a grittier era, when the little commercial strip — barely more than a single block — catered largely to workers from the neighboring naval shipyard, where nuclear submarines are repaired. The pub opened in the early ’90s and quickly became a popular spot to grab a sandwich on lunch break or to shoot pool and drink beers after a shift. Sometimes, it was rowdy. (“We do not call the police on our customers,” one of the former owners told a local paper, “although there are a few who have been banned from here.”)

Several years after the Corner Pub opened, though, cutbacks halved the shipyard workforce, from about 8,000 to 4,000, and the Foreside started to stagnate. “In the ’60s, the Foreside had a bank, a market, and a couple of beer joints,” Kittery town council chair Jeff Thomson recalls. “By the ’90s, nothing was really sticking. Businesses cycled in and out, and it wasn’t what you’d consider a downtown — it wasn’t a destination for people.”

Michael Landgarten in the Foreside
Michael Landgarten in the Foreside. Photo by Jason Frank.

Then, in 2005, Anneke Jans, a white-tablecloth bistro, opened in what had been an antiques store, marking the start of a slow recovery for the neighborhood. A few years later, Tulsi, an Indian restaurant, opened down the street, followed by a pizza place and, in another few years, the Black Birch, a gastropub in a former post office. The major turning point arrived in 2012, when Landgarten led a group of local investors in purchasing 7 Wallingford Square, a mostly vacant three-story building that spans half the block. Originally a Masonic lodge, the building was soon home to a cocktail bar, a ramen bar, a coffee shop (which Landgarten owns), a butcher shop, a boutique gift shop, and a coworking space (which Landgarten also owns). Flanking either side are a bicycle-repair garage and a smoothie stand, and more restaurants and shops have since filled out the neighborhood.

That Foreside revival was an about-face not just for the neighborhood but for the entire town. “Before then, I remember Kittery just being a place where people fought all the time,” Landgarten says. “It wasn’t happy. There had been corruption — some really ugly episodes — and people seemed angry with each other.” Among several municipal flash points, the most damaging were when, in 1998, the town tax assessor was sentenced to federal prison for offering tax abatements in exchange for kickbacks from business owners and when, in 2006, a former town council chairman was convicted of operating a prostitution ring, after the FBI raided what was purportedly a health club.

“That’s the kind of town it seemed like to a lot of people — underhanded and mean-spirited,” Landgarten says. “So when the downtown became, almost overnight, a place where they could go and reconnect, we really needed that. And now, Kittery is kind of a delight, and people don’t even remember how grumpy everyone was. But back then, nobody was saying, ‘We don’t want Kittery to turn into Portsmouth.’ That would have been a totally absurd comment.”

Beers at the Corner Pub
Beers at the Corner Pub. Photo by Jason Frank.

Now, so significantly have Kittery’s fortunes changed that concern about becoming too much like the heavily touristed New Hampshire city just across the Piscataqua River is widely shared. “People here are very vocal about not wanting to be Portsmouth — I’ve been hearing that ever since I got here,” says town manager Kendra Amaral, who arrived on the job five years ago. The new energy in the Foreside has driven fresh interest in Kittery as a place to visit, to live, and to start a business, with new establishments popping up beyond the Foreside too — a barbecue joint on Badger Island, a trio of restaurants at an old wharf on Pepperell Cove, even a little Caribbean place on the side of a rotary just off the highway. A few years ago, the owners of the Blue Mermaid, which opened in Portsmouth in the early ’90s, relocated next to Tributary Brewing Company, inside a former supermarket, in order to escape the congestion of Portsmouth. Meanwhile, Kittery residents have watched warily as chain hotels encroached on Portsmouth’s downtown and housing prices there skyrocketed — it’s not uncommon for a two-bedroom apartment to sell in the range of a million dollars. Foreside is only a 20-minute walk or a few minutes’ drive across the bridge — how long would the river hold back the tide?

That worry pushed Landgarten, along with a couple of friends, to buy the Corner Pub. It wasn’t the type of business he’d brought to the Foreside, but it felt like one worth keeping. “Buying it was partly a defensive maneuver — I didn’t want it to turn into condos or something too slick or upscale or a chain,” he says. “When I was first leading the renovation of the Wallingford building, I kept getting asked by the local paper, ‘How are you going to keep the area from becoming gentrified?’ I was like, ‘Jeez, I don’t know.’ I didn’t even really know how this whole thing had worked out, and now you’re already asking me how not to have the neighborhood go wrong? That was way over my head at the time. But it was a really important question.”

Jeff Thomson, the current chair of the town council, grew up in Kittery in the ’60s, near the small grocery his father ran. Today, he lives in the house his grandparents bought in 1903. Ever since he was a kid, Kittery had seemed to lack its own center of gravity. “My wife grew up in Presque Isle,” he says, “and it had a main street with a movie theater and a drugstore and that sort of thing. When we were first married and she started living in Kittery, she said, ‘Where is this stuff?’ And I said, ‘Across the river.’”

Kittery’s identity was the shipyard, which had existed since 1800 and started specializing in submarines during the First World War. When Thomson was in high school, most of his classmates’ fathers worked at the shipyard, and when he first ran for council, in the ’70s, town government was mostly led by shipyard workers. Thomson, though, went a different route: he got a job as an economist with the U.S. Department of Labor, and though the offices were in Boston, he frequently worked from home.

Remote work started to make a noticeable impact on Kittery’s demographics maybe 15 years ago, he says. Boston is only an hour drive, and online tools were starting to make it possible for people to go into the office less often. Even though the Foreside was still puttering along, outlying neighborhoods like Kittery Point — whose quiet roads wind to and from the shore — were enough to tempt some people to spend their big-city salaries on a small-town lifestyle. Plus, it seemed retirees were taking an increased interest in the area. Slowly, real-estate values started to rise.

Crullers from Lil’s Cafe
Crullers from Lil’s Cafe. Photo by Jason Frank.
Ramen from Anju Noodle Bar
Ramen from Anju Noodle Bar. Photo by Jason Frank.

Only in the last several years, though, have rents and home prices become a major source of consternation. In 2018, the town government got a grant from the Department of Defense to commission a study on workforce housing, local transportation, and land use. The results showed that only 7 percent of shipyard workers live in Kittery now, with most commuting from more affordable inland towns, such as Sanford and Berwick. In a decade, median home prices in Kittery have increased 75 percent, versus 54 percent statewide, according to Maine State Housing Authority data, which also indicates that the median household income needed to afford living in Kittery now exceeds the actual median income by some $30,000 a year. “Housing costs keep rising,” says Emily Flinkstrom, executive director of Fair Tide, a local nonprofit focused on housing issues, “and wages don’t.”

Her group used to primarily focus on fighting homelessness — supporting people who had lost or risked losing their homes. But recent trends forced Fair Tide to take a broader view. “There are a lot of families living very precariously on the brink of homelessness,” Flinkstrom says. “Sometimes it’s hard to get your head around because there is a lot of wealth here and because you don’t see it — it’s not in your face. But people are doubled up or living in unsuitable conditions or living in their cars. My big realization was that we can’t accomplish our work unless we’re also addressing the major underlying issue of lack of affordable housing.”

Fair Tide executive director Emily Flinkstrom in the nonprofit’s thrift shop
Fair Tide executive director Emily Flinkstrom in the nonprofit’s thrift shop. Photo by Jason Frank.

Flinkstrom is now on Kittery’s newly formed housing committee, as is Amaral, the town manager. “This was something we needed to focus on before the pandemic,” Amaral says, “and it’s even more pressing now.” The pandemic delivered a real-estate boom to much of Maine, an urban exodus driven by the possibility of remote work and the desire for livability. In Kittery, that has only exacerbated problems that were already starting to show.

A conversation about housing got started as the town formulated its 2015–2025 comprehensive plan, Amaral says, and the town has since been holding forums and workshops on the topic. “Springing affordable housing on a community by saying, ‘Today, we think it’s a problem, and tomorrow, we want you to approve something,’ that doesn’t work,” she says. “People need that time to really coalesce their feelings and thoughts. But they’ve watched the housing crisis in Portsmouth, and we’re feeling some of that in Kittery. No one wants Kittery to become the kind of community where you can’t be a teacher or a police officer and afford to live.”

The language in the comprehensive plan describes a town at a crossroads. Locals enjoy their community as it is and “jealously guard” its quiet areas and natural assets. (Parking at Seapoint Beach, for instance, requires a resident sticker in the summer, and season passes to Fort Foster Park are $75 for nonresidents and only $20 for residents.) The plan pays particular attention to concerns that new waves of travelers and house hunters will chip away at the character of the town — the word “character” appears 74 times in the 344-page document. The overall picture is of a population that would prefer to keep things pretty much the same but also realizes that without addressing rising unaffordability, everything will change anyway.

The Memorial Bridge is one of three spans connecting Kittery and Portsmouth.
The Memorial Bridge is one of three spans connecting Kittery and Portsmouth. Photo by Susan Cole Kelly.

“That idea about wanting to maintain the character of Kittery — we need to be really specific about what we mean by character,” Flinkstrom says, “because it can be used as a way to very politely say what we don’t want. When I think of the character of Kittery, I think that, historically, Kittery has been a place where people who work here can afford to live. So if we want to maintain the quote-unquote character of Kittery, we need to put in place measures to make sure affordable housing is included.”

That, though, will mean modes of development that are mostly foreign to Kittery: high-density apartment buildings on a scale that would significantly increase housing stock and provide alternatives to the single-family norm, plus units reserved for people who can’t swing market rates. And while there’s little to no support for, say, increasing housing density in Kittery Point or jamming the Foreside with new buildings, there is one area that few people would mind seeing overhauled: “Today, you drive past all the outlet malls out on Route 1 and think, god, there’s so much missed opportunity here,” Amaral says.

Until Michael Landgarten led the effort to reinvigorate the Foreside, outlet malls were, at least to outsiders, Kittery’s defining feature. “Talk to anybody anywhere who knew of Kittery,” he recalls, “and they’d say, ‘Oh yeah, outlets.’ It was terrible. You might as well have changed the name of the town to Kittery Outlets.”

When Landgarten took over Bob’s Clam Hut, in 1986, the outlets were still new. Before then, that stretch of Route 1 had a mom-and-pop vibe. There was Bob’s, a Chinese restaurant, a drive-in theater, some roadside vendors, farm fields, and the Kittery Trading Post (the latter started as a swap shop at a gas station and is now a 90,000-square-foot outdoor-gear store). Putting outlet malls there made sense at one time — right off the turnpike, with millions of visitors whizzing by every year. And Kittery would benefit from an expanded property-tax base and the spillover effect of shoppers spending money at both local businesses and national chains. Or so the logic went.

“It was seen as a way to make Kittery a destination, but people came, shopped, and got back on the highway,” Jeff Thomson says. “Plus, the buildings weren’t very high quality — cement floors, lights hanging from metal rafters — so it didn’t really increase the overall town valuation to such an extent. And since there’s no local sales tax, they can sell, sell, sell to their heart’s content out there, and we get nothing.”

Now, those mall buildings are getting old, and brick-and-mortar retail is up against online shopping. Town officials are hoping that the property owners — among whom national shopping-mall operator Simon Property Group is the largest — might consider selling to developers who’d build in the town-center style, mixing residential and commercial uses. “The fact that those sites are at that right point to be redeveloped, this is the pivotal moment,” Amaral says. “We’re not such masterminds that we timed this perfectly with the affordable-housing issue, but it kind of worked out.”

Replacing the malls wouldn’t disrupt the feel of existing neighborhoods, and one gets the impression that there aren’t too many residents who’d be sad to see them go. Longtime Kittery Land Trust board member Melissa Paly points out too that utilities are already laid, and the land is already paved. The environmental damage has been done — and redevelopment would even present an opportunity to do some environmental repair, since the outlets’ massive parking lots send stormwater runoff into nearby Spruce Creek. Her group recently acquired a 30-acre farm just on the other side of the turnpike, to prevent it from becoming a housing subdivision, but the outlets present something entirely different, she says. “We’re not against development and growth — we know that housing is in tremendous demand, and especially affordable housing. But it’s a matter of where and how, and I think there’s so much potential in redeveloping those malls.”

The naval shipyard workforce shrank dramatically in the mid-’90s, and though employment at the shipyard has since ticked back up, few of the workers still live in Kittery.
The naval shipyard workforce shrank dramatically in the mid-’90s, and though employment at the shipyard has since ticked back up, few of the workers still live in Kittery. Photo by Jason Frank.

Whether the outlets are actually going anywhere soon is another matter. “My perspective is that the future of retailing on Route 1 is bright,” says David Labbe, chief financial officer of the Kittery Trading Post. “Our store draws over 2 million visitors a year, and that has a residual impact on the businesses surrounding us.” Although not opposed to seeing new types of development around the outlets, he suspects talk of their demise might be premature. The pandemic has been especially tough on the malls, and there’s frequent turnover, but he points out that some of those spaces have found new uses — Woodland Farm Brewery opened in one mall a few years ago, and Portland-based Definitive Brewing opened a taproom in a neighboring mall last year.

Still, the town is doing what it can to push the issue, recently rezoning the strip for residential use, incentivizing denser building, and setting a requirement that 10 percent of units be designated for affordable housing, pegged to the area’s median household income. Those rentals, for instance, would only be available to households earning up to 80 percent of median income, and rents wouldn’t be allowed to surpass 30 percent of median income.

Last year, the town okayed plans for a mixed-use apartment complex with more than 300 units, slated to be the first development of its kind in Kittery. But the site isn’t out around the outlets — it’s in a previously undeveloped area near the turnpike — and approval came before the town had formalized its plans for affordable housing. All the units will go for market rate.

“I think that’s a lesson learned,” Fair Tide’s Emily Flinkstrom says. “Developers are eying Kittery. Now is the time to get in front of it. If we’d had zoning changes in place for that particular area, we could have 30 affordable units for our town, but we’re laying the groundwork. Change is inevitable, and growth is here, so instead of railing against it, our job is to work with it to create the future we want.”


Down East Magazine, May 2021