LEWISTON — The zoning codes that helped change Lisbon Street's rough-and-tumble reputation as a drinking destination might have run their course, according to one member of the Lewiston Planning Board.
"We are starting to see some foot traffic downtown," Planning Board member Eric Potvin said. "What we're trying to do is generate some positive momentum, and some new drinking places down there could do that."
Potvin is recommending the city reverse its restrictive adult drinking establishment rules, allowing Lisbon Street and the Riverfront Island to open some nice bars and taverns, side-by-side.
"Picture a nice upper-scale bar with some nicer scotches and whiskeys, and maybe 10 taps of local beers," he said. "It's just a small thing, a basic drinking place where they don't serve food."
For his part, Potvin pictures a district that could attract young adults throughout the region.
"The Riverfront Island, that whole area is prime for development as we try to encourage younger people to either move back home or come here for the first time," Potvin said. "Maybe they can realize that it's only a 35-minute-drive to Portland, maybe they can work there and live in Lewiston. And one of the things younger people say is they need more things to do in Lewiston. I think this is all part of that."
That can't happen now because of zoning rules. Lewiston's current zoning ordinances date back to its rough-and-tumble reputation in the 1980s, when bars and social clubs lined Lisbon Street. The current rule limits clubs downtown from being within 300 feet of each other.
"The zoning was put in for a particular reason, and they reached that goal," Potvin said. "People would go down there on a Saturday afternoon and park, not to go to the bars but to watch the fights. But they cleaned it up, and it only took a couple of years."
Lewiston Planning Director Gil Arsenault said he worked for the city when the restrictive zoning code was adopted.
"Lisbon Street in its heyday was just bar, bar, bar," Arsenault said. "There was a lot of activity there."
The zoning changed that, he said.
"And there's concern about going back to that," Arsenault said. "So much of what a club or a bar does is up to the management. Part of it is the age group it caters to. There is a lot to consider, and we are a long ways from making recommendations yet."
But it's time to talk about it, Potvin said.
"You look at how far we have come now," Potvin said. "It's pretty remarkable, with Rainbow Bicycle opening."
The new bike shop and cafe joins a growing upper Lisbon Street retail class: Forage Market, The Vault wine shop, and restaurants Fuel, Marche, Niky's and Mother India.
The tight zoning did its job so well that it still makes it tough for a night club to survive today. A single bar or tavern would be alone on Lisbon Street.
"Essentially, we have a density cap, and I'm suggesting removing it entirely in that one area," he said. "We don't want to duplicate (Portland's) Old Port, but we want to remove the restrictions for developers. Something special is being created there, and we want to encourage it."
Arsenault said he expects the Planning Board to discuss Potvin's suggestion at the Jan. 7 meeting. That board can only make suggestions on zoning changes; the ultimate decision would be up to the City Council.
"But this would be a big change, so I think there will be a lot of discussion," he said.