AUBURN — The Court Street question — whether it’s a chunk of potentially valuable downtown real estate or a high-speed thoroughfare — could go under the microscope this summer.

On one side are transportation and downtown planners, many in town this week for the second BuildMaine Conference hosted by the Twin Cities.

Conference organizers recommend re-striping a section of the four-lane street. The repainted section would have single lanes going in either direction, separated by a turning lane down the middle. The right lane on the northern side would be for on-street parking.

Auburn officials are moving forward with the idea, awaiting clearance from the state Department of Transportation.

On the other side are drivers who fear the change will transform the street into a frustrating snarl.

“It’s already backed up,” local Realtor Mary Ann Norcross said. “If the train comes through, traffic goes all the way up Goff Hill. And now they’re saying we want to narrow it? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Court Street sees thousands of vehicles daily, many of them crammed into a couple of rush hours early in the morning and early in the evening. Narrowing it will almost certainly change the character of Court Street.

According to urban planner Mike Lydon, it just might wake up Auburn’s downtown and make it an economic engine.

“We’ve had two or three generations of people who don’t remember what this part of town was like,” Lydon said. “All they know is the traffic.”

Lydon is one of the featured speakers later this week at the BuildMaine conference. A well-known planner and author, he is teaching a course on Urban Planning at Bates College.

The BuildMaine Conference is an exposition for the leading ideas on urban redevelopment. It’s scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday, May 20 and 21, in Lewiston’s Bates Mill No. 1.

This is the second time the Twin Cities has served as the host for the conference — and as the conference’s laboratory. Last fall, the city of Lewiston painted special in-road bike paths between Bates College and the Bates Mill to test that idea.

This year, conference organizers have turned their experimental gaze on Auburn, urging the city to try two new schemes. One would bring food trucks and cafe seating to Main Street around Festival Plaza for the duration of the festival.

But the other would repaint Court Street’s lines between Turner Street and Spring Street, narrowing that stretch of the road from four lanes to three for the whole summer and beyond.

“It’s worth testing ideas like this,” Lydon said. “Let’s stop doing this stuff in theory, in renderings and drawings. Let’s debate it in practice and see what it actually does. Maybe your commute is 10 seconds longer, maybe it’s 45 seconds longer. But maybe it changes the way people relate to the street.”

At one time, stores and shops lined Court Street; it was a traditional Maine downtown, he said. That was before on-street parking was removed and the road was widened to four travel lanes.

“But it wasn’t one move that killed the downtowns on either side of the river; It’s been a combination of many moves over time,” Lydon said.

Speedy traffic certainly had a big effect, and it’s one planners can test.

Court Street traffic diminishes west of the Turner Street-Mechanics Row intersection, with most of the traffic turning off onto one of the side streets.

Traffic on the east side of that intersection was estimated at 28,000 cars daily traveling in either direction, based on a 2011 traffic study. Traffic west of that was estimated at 17,600 cars daily.

City Planner Eric Cousens said narrowing Court Street might encourage traffic that does not need to be downtown to avoid the area.

“That may need to happen to make this a system that can actually support more business, as well as the businesses that exist there now,” Cousens said. “I think that traffic may have been a major reason for the decline in Court Street’s businesses.”

The cars that remain would have to slow down, and slower car traffic would encourage more pedestrian traffic, which could translate into new business.

“So the question becomes, is it worth adding 45 seconds to your commute to have a downtown that’s productive, safe and economically viable?” Lydon said. “I would argue that it is.”

Businesses along the route say it’s worth a shot.

“Realistically, this is like the Indianapolis 500,” said Jamie Pelletier, manager of J.T. Reids Gun Shop. “The biggest problem is that everybody is in such a hurry. They block intersections, they run yellow lights and they drive through like crazy.”

It’s not conducive to luring in retail customers.

“I drive down every morning on my way in, and turn on my turn signal to go into my lot and you don’t want to know how many times people blare their horns at me as I’m turning in,” he said. “What do they do to potential customers?”

Orphan Annie’s Antiques owner Don Poulin agreed. His store survives on its reputation and destination customers that drive in specifically to shop. But he imagines how it would be if customers could browse along the street, visiting shops.

“People have said ‘It’s so hard to get into your store,'” he said. “If they’re coming up Court Street, there’s no place for them stop. They have to figure out a way to turn around and come back, if they do.”

Not everyone is convinced. Realtor Norcross said it’s a harebrained idea that will only shut down traffic. Court Street is not a place to promote downtown development.

“Court Street is not a downtown street, it’s a way through town,” she said. “It’s the way to get through Lewiston and it’s not going to change.”

If they want to experiment with downtown, let them do it on Main Street.

“Main Street has a little ice cream shop, a candy store, a couple of restaurants and a beauty shop,” Norcross said. “That makes some sense. They have some space to do it. But I just don’t see it on Court Street. I don’t buy it.”

Transportation Planner Chuck Marohn, another featured speaker at Thursday’s conference, said the city must have a very carefully designed goal in mind before it paints lines. That means easing up the regulation process, allowing new business to come in.

“If we don’t allow our cities to incrementally grow and expand, that congestion will just be a burden. It won’t be any help,” Marohn said. “If you allow investment, you allow the market to respond and you have congestion and you have a good reason for it. People don’t mind. But if you don’t do that, all you’ll have is congestion. And then, everybody will just get mad.”

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BuildMaine Conference 

The Maine chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism New England will host the second BuildMaine conference Wednesday and Thursday, May 20 and 21, at Bates Mill No. 1.

The conference brings urban planning professionals together to discuss new ideas about improving Maine’s economy.

Tickets are $65, $25 for students, and available online at https://buildmaine.squarespace.com/attend/ or at the door.

Events on Wednesday include lunchtime demonstrations on Oxford Street, a 5 p.m. urban river paddle beginning at Festival Plaza, and a beer garden and Pecha Kucha at 7 p.m. at Baxter Brewing in the Bates Mill conference area.

The conference runs from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m Thursday in Bates Mill No. 1 and includes presentations, speeches and tours.

Food trucks will be selling goods in the Bates Mill parking lot at noon.


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