Face time: Auburn’s Al Manoian — an expert in making downtowns more livable

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Al Manoian’s favorite city is Lowell, Mass. — once home of the nation’s largest industrial complex — on the banks of the Merrimack River. Perhaps no surprise that he finds himself the economic development specialist for another mill city on a river: Auburn.

Part of his mission: to carry forward a vision created by residents of the city to make Auburn more livable. To say he is passionate about that mission is an understatement. He’s got a few ideas. 

Name: Alan S. Manoian

Armenian? American of Armenian ancestry. My mother’s family, the Mardirosians, immigrated to and settled in Lawrence, Mass.; my father’s family, the Manoians, immigrated to and settled in Lowell, Mass.; both families settled in the two great textile manufacturing cities of the Merrimack Valley before 1914.

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Current town of residence: Auburn

What’s your vision for Auburn if it does the kind of planning and takes the kind of action you think it should? What could it actually look and feel like here?

My role is not to formulate a “vision,” but rather to tune into the community frequency of the time and build the civic capacity to effect the transformation of an adopted community vision into a living reality.

The “Auburn Vision” has been thoroughly articulated in a series of resident-based Community & Economic Planning/Development studies, products and plans, including the 1997 ADAPT Plan, the 2009 New Auburn Master Plan and the 2010 City of Auburn Comprehensive Plan.

I believe the city of Auburn is now ready “to take the kind of action” advanced in these impressive civic visions and plans.

What downtown Auburn could actually live and feel like is a place designed not for “saving time,” as are many automobile-oriented strip corridors and suburban office parks, but instead a place designed for “time well spent,” as downtown Auburn once “lived” prior to the destructive forces of 1950s-1980s transportation engineering and urban renewal.

Can you give an example of another place or town in Maine that has done this successfully? What is it like there?

No two communities are identical nor should they be; one of the fundamental pillars of “place-based economic development” is that each community must be envisioned, designed, coded, developed and redeveloped based upon its unique and distinctive qualities, characteristics, customs, heritage, assets and place, in order to maximize its social, cultural, civic and economic potential.

Notable Maine communities that have embraced the design and development techniques and practices . . . to a greater or lesser degree include the Old Port in Portland, Rockland, Gardiner, Freeport, Bangor, Bath and Belfast. Most of these communities are close to the coast and have the advantage of offering a tourism-based oceanfront visitors experience; the new frontier of New England urban lifestyle development presents itself in our inland, riverfront, historic-manufacturing cities such as Auburn.

In terms of “what is it like” in these Maine communities, in a word . . . “livable.” They are exceedingly livable because the building and street development pattern results in people wanting to park once and walk the town to do many things, which creates great human vitality, which ignites the human senses, which creates spontaneous encounters and social interaction, which creates sensitivity of and devotion to place, which acts as a magnet to the type of building form and enterprise that thrives in people-based destination places. Which then kicks in the so-called “golden rule of retailing,” being: People don’t follow retail, retail follows people.

When downtown Auburn re-emerges as a place where the upper stories of our remaining great historic downtown buildings are filled with a mix of new high-quality market-rate and affordable urban residences, when on-street parking is re-established, and when our sidewalks are once again covered with people walking, lingering, socializing, discovering, touring, cafe sitting and having “time well spent,” then fresh new retailers and cool restaurants/cafes will do what they do best – follow the customer market and prosper!

Such a transformation will most surely require motorists to slow down as they travel Court Street, is that right?

The transformation of downtown Auburn from what it has become over the past 50+ years (a de-sensitized, de-peopled and down-placed automobile-oriented strip corridor and pseudo-suburban office complex) back into a re-sensitized, re-peopled and up-placed destination district designed to balance the needs and desires for both people and automobiles will require something seemingly very simple and basic:

It will require motorists to operate their vehicles at the posted speed limit of 25 mph on Court Street, Main Street, Turner Street, etc. The fact is the most dangerous time to be a pedestrian in downtown Auburn is not during the brief hourlong commute in the morning and evening, but rather when Court, Main and Turner streets transform into wide open speed tracks between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., and 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.

This destructive, constant and culturally accepted disregard for the posted speed limit on our urban core streets is not entirely the fault of those operating vehicles along these urban streets. Fault also lies with the 1950s removal of most on-street parking; the widening of travel lanes; the curving of intersections for speed and fast flow; the devastating loss of the historic building fabric of Court Street through 1970s urban renewal; the physical and functional detachment of new commercial buildings from the sidewalk and street; the intentional shunning of pedestrians through the relocation of building main entrances or doorways from the sidewalk and street to the backs of both commercial and governmental buildings; the use of traditional sidewalk-level storefronts for office use; the application of reflective, mirrored, shaded and blacked-out windows on commercial buildings facing the street and sidewalks; the constant expansion of drive-through commercial operations; and the use of large, overstated, glaring and flashing signage and message boards designed to connect with vehicles moving at a rapid rate of speed as is necessary on an intense auto-strip corridor.

All of that, along with the short length of downtown Auburn, the steep grade of Court Street and the gravitational pull of the long and fast North Bridge, have conditioned motorists for over 50 years to charge hard through the green and yellow traffic lights heading toward the bridge or coming from the bridge. Two to three generations of motorists and truckers have become technically expert at flying through downtown Auburn.

Do you think people will buy into that change? How is that kind of thing best accomplished?

The solution is two-fold. First, enforce the posted speed limit, which, in my opinion, places the Auburn Police Department in a most unmanageable position, because it would require literally constant “round-the-clock” traffic enforcement, which is financially and tactically unsustainable.

Second, the community must develop, design, adopt and reassert downtown Auburn’s traditional and human-scale block, street and building development pattern. That would include the reintroduction of on-street parking on Court Street, Turner Street and Mechanics Row, the construction of enhanced and innovative crosswalks, the requirement that all commercial and governmental buildings orient their front doors to the sidewalk and street, and the active programming of sidewalks, including but not limited to encouraging sidewalk cafes, sidewalk performances, sidewalk public sculpture, alfresco sidewalk retailing and basically the re-humanizing of downtown Auburn.

Doing so will create a place where motorists would actually not want to speed through, so as to have a chance to take in all the vibrancy and interesting goings-on as they move along at 25 mph. Right now they speed because there is no reason not to speed through downtown Auburn. Traffic speed enforcement is the short-term fix; place-based design and redevelopment must be the long-term solution.

What’s your favorite city in the world, and why?

Lowell, Massachusetts. I would have to author a book to answer why.

My favorite city to visit in the world has to be the city of Victoria, British Columbia; the masters of creating a high-quality urban public realm.

Before you came to Auburn to become the city’s economic development specialist, what experiences did you have that led you to believe this is the best future for Auburn?

As a native of Lowell, Mass., which was America’s first planned manufacturing city (1821) and had America’s first Urban National Park (1978), I had, as a young man in the late 1980s, the greatest living urban classroom or laboratory I could hope for, given my chosen field was urban planning, heritage preservation and economic development.

In Lowell we made a stand and proclaimed to the world that New England’s great historic manufacturing cities would one day be on the vanguard of a new urban lifestyle, and the foundation of that new life for our cities would rest upon the restoration, preservation and repurposing of our world-class heritage and natural assets; our riverfronts, our massive red-brick-and-granite textile and shoe mill buildings, our historic city commons and parks, our human-scale streets and sidewalks, our public sculpture and monuments, our historic street-fabric mercantile building architecture, our historic church buildings and our traditional walkable compact urban neighborhoods.

In those days we called it “urban revitalization,” but what we were engaging in was, and is to this day, the “economics of place” and “new urbanism.” All that I learned in Lowell I then effected into action in the great city of Nashua, N.H. Between 1994 and 2003, we reinvented downtown Nashua as one of New England’s great downtown destination and lifestyle places.

As I read the “Comparable City Research” section of the 1998 city of Auburn ADAPT Plan (Auburn Downtown Action Plan for Tomorrow), I remembered that in 1997 the consultants for the plan contacted and interviewed me as Nashua’s downtown development specialist so as to cite our downtown Nashua program as a noteworthy success story. My interview all those years ago is part of the ADAPT document; this made me feel that it was inevitable fate that brought me here 14 years later to serve the great city of Auburn.

The ADAPT plan reads, “The revitalization (of downtown Nashua) has centered instead on transforming the nature and image of downtown from a utilitarian area that people visited to conduct some brief business when they have to, for as short a time as possible, into a pleasure area for residents of the region to visit and spend the morning or a longer period of the day.”

Sound familiar Auburn?

It also reads: “The potential attraction to downtown (Nashua) visitors and merchants is the unique and personal nature of a lively downtown, as opposed to the uniform and impersonal atmosphere of strip developments and malls. The approach here is not to attract malls, but to offer an alternative to mall shopping and dining.”

My service as planning manager for the landmark redevelopment of the decommissioned South Weymouth Naval Air Station as Massachusetts’ first planned Smart Growth community; my privilege in being a member of the 2005 inaugural class of the Form-Based Code Institute and serving as a New England-based public speaker and advocate for Form-Based Codes; and the fact that America as a society is increasingly embracing a lifestyle-based reunion and return to our once-great urban neighborhoods and downtown districts makes the work, principles, and ideals that so many of us have advocated for so many years a rewarding reality. The best of days of our great American cities, surely for Auburn and Lewiston, are on the glowing horizon.

You are not only Auburn’s economic development specialist, but you’ve given a number of tours of Auburn, including a night tour, with more coming up later this year. In your mind what are some of Auburn’s highlights?

We develop and conduct downtown Auburn architectural history walking tours, urban design walking tours, industrial history walking tours, and social history walking tours. To genuinely understand the challenges of downtown revitalization you must experience the environment physically. The transformation of place will not happen by looking at maps, reports and studies in meeting rooms; the work must be taken to the streets.

Success comes when the morning after a downtown tour, I get a call at City Hall from one of the tour participants who declares to me, “Alan, I have driven on that street for many years and thought I knew the place, but after the tour last night I am seeing the place in a whole new way.” This is why we conduct walking tours.

Auburn’s highlights include the Great Falls (one of New England’s greatest natural wonders), the Androscoggin River, the Little Androscoggin River, the 1857 Androscoggin County Courthouse and the 1865 Auburn Hall Building (both designed by famed architect Gridley J.F. Bryant), the 1882 Auburn Civil War Monument carved by one of Maine’s first Italian sculptors, the 1878 Edward Little statue sculpted in Rome and cast in the Royal Foundry of Munich Germany by famed sculptor Franklin Simmons, the 1878 Goff Block, the 1914 Lunn & Sweet Shoe Factory Building, the 1869 Court Street Baptist Church, the 1878 Engine House, the 1886 Mechanics Savings Bank Building, the 1826 Edward Little House, the 1873 Roak Block and more.

The potential of the city of Auburn, and downtown Auburn in particular, is nothing short of astronomical when its genuine and precious assets and its sense of “place” are most valued and advanced.

How can people get involved?

Join us on the sidewalks and streets of downtown Auburn.

Slide-Show tour of Auburn’s downtown set for March

Al Manoian will be hosting a slide-show tour of the downtown on March 6 at 5:30 p.m. at the Auburn Public Library. The presentation will include a discussion about the future of the downtown and a program planned for this summer to get residents to think differently about the area.

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