On a recent trip to downtown Brunswick, I couldn’t help noticing the feeling of walking down the street, finding my destination and walking up to the crosswalk to head to the other side. It was a feeling different from making similar attempts to cross a street in Lewiston-Auburn these days.

Busy Maine Street in Brunswick, with nearly 20,000 vehicles a day, has wide crosswalks, was well-signed and traffic eased by at paces that allows safe crossing. Now try Court, Lincoln, Lisbon or Main streets; not nearly the same experience, with crosswalks spaced far apart, limited or no signage to slow traffic and a general unsafe, pedestrian un-friendly environment.

For communities looking to create a vibrant atmosphere, committees, task forces and studies seem to drag out the inevitable inaction that comes from studying something to death. (This newspaper editorialized on that very fact not too long ago.)

At some point in its history, I’m sure Brunswick put together a study for its downtown. A search of the Internet would likely turn up the document, but that’s not really relevant to what that walk down Maine Street clarified for me.

There are two key pieces to make a downtown feel alive and attractive and inviting for residents and visitors alike: a mix of uses (civic, commercial, residential, etc) in high density, and the ability to move from place-to-place without the need to drive. Bells and whistles like the arts, recreation, pretty signs and other amenities are icing, if those two key pieces are already in place.

If a case study is more helpful, look at the Court Street corridor in Auburn from Minot Avenue to the Longley Bridge. This section of the community features civic buildings (Auburn Hall and the county building), retail and dining (Gritty’s, Holly’s, Orphan Annie’s), numerous office buildings and several apartment buildings. The first piece of the puzzle is in place; a mix of land uses available in high density.

The second piece, however, is severely lacking. Walking around downtown Auburn, around Court Street, is a dangerous proposition at best.

While many communities have signs on their main road noting to yield to pedestrians, limited signage is on Court Street and it’s unclear whether it would make a difference. Those that have tried to cross Court Street to enter Great Falls Plaza, head to the library or visit the county building on business know this is the case, as traffic speeds by, oblivious to anyone on foot.

It is hard enough to keep downtowns walkable in a state where sidewalks are barely accessible four months of the year due to snow. We witnessed this challenge when Lewiston’s City Council wrestled with whether land owners should be required to clear sidewalks in front of their properties. In fact, it takes both Lewiston and Auburn nearly three days to clear most sidewalks after a storm, based on the present level of service funded by both city councils.

Crazy ideas like building “sky-walks” to connect buildings and parking garages have been thrown about as means to avoid the harsh winter conditions and make downtown L-A more pedestrian-friendly. They’re not bad ideas if millions of dollars are laying around to invest.

But what happens during the seasons when people want to walk outside and enjoy the sun and fresh air? Nothing, because the same unsafe and unwelcoming conditions await them.

Putting down more sidewalk paint is cheap. Traffic enforcement already has a presence downtown. And those yield to pedestrian signs could probably be ordered by the dozen. Add those ingredients to what businesses and residents have already done in downtown and we’ll see a marked improvement, without ever commissioning a study.

Jonathan LaBonte, of New Auburn, is a columnist for the Sun Journal. E-mail: [email protected]


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