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June 27, 2018

Falmouth Center proposal tests town's commercial goals

Courtesy / Archetype Architects
Courtesy / Archetype Architects
An overlay rendering shows proposed uses at the Falmouth Center development on Route 1 in Falmouth. The existing Falmouth Shopping Center is at the right in white, with its parking lot in gray.

FALMOUTH — The town's vision for its U.S. Route 1 commercial corridor and desire for more development there is being tested with a proposal for a 40-acre, 400-000-square-foot mixed use complex at the Falmouth Shopping Center.

Developers Jonathan Cohen and Joseph Soley bought the 203,637-square-foot shopping center and its 29 undeveloped acres for $21 million in March. The L-shaped strip mall houses Shaw's supermarket, Ocean State Job Lots and several other retail and office tenants.

The developers unveiled plans earlier this month for the addition of a mixed-use development that will also include 11 acres at the north of the property, owned by the state, where the ramp to the Maine Turnpike connector spur is.

The proposal comes after efforts by the town to find a way to spark development, but it's getting some pushback from abutters in the Foreside neighborhood.

The development, which has 21 buildings, would happen in phases over seven years, adding retail pads to the Route 1 front of the mall property, as well as a hotel, residences and office space.

The first phase includes a soccer complex with two turf fields and indoor field.

A zoning change that would allow the soccer fields goes before the planning board July 3, and the town council votes on the rezoning July 9.

More than 100 people turned out for a public hearing Monday night before the town council, and most of the nearly 30 speakers were abutters to the property who had concerns, many centered around the soccer fields

Abutters also were concerned about the overall size of the project and the effect on wetlands at the rear of the property, as well as its effect on traffic and the character of the town. The urged a cautious approach and some suggested forming a town master plan rather than allowing a zoning change.

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Falmouth Center developer Jonathan Cohen speaks at a public hearing before the Falmouth Town Council Monday.

'This isn't something that suddenly happened'

The project comes after the town has worked to solve some ongoing issues on Falmouth's Route 1 commercial strip, including better use of the Falmouth Shopping Center and other languishing vacancies.

About 50,000 square feet of the shopping center was vacant for years after Shaw's moved from the north end to new quarters at the south end. Lamey-Wellehan shoe store moved across the street several years ago as well, leaving more vacant space.

Ocean State Job Lots and Planet Fitness moved into some of the empty space last fall, but parts of the mall still remain vacant.

The project also includes redevelopment of the overpass and ramp that lead to the Maine Turnpike spur, something the town and state Department of Transportation have been working to interest development in since 2016.

In exchange for the 11 acres, the developer would take down the overpass and reconfigure the ramp. A DOT news release in 2016 said it would "create a prime development site that was previously unavailable."

Two months ago, the town held a forum for developers to make them aware of development possibilities in Falmouth.

The announcement of the forum pointed out the $12 million infrastructure investment in the Route 1 commercial area and new village-style zoning rules the town had adopted in 2015.

At Monday's hearing, Bonny Rodden, a former town councilor and chairwoman of the committee that headed that effort, said the town "rezoned Route 1 so projects like this could be built."

The committee did extensive work, including residential surveys and a charette that resulted in a 2009 report on what the future of the commercial part of the town could be.

"[This proposal] isn't something that suddenly happened," she said.

'A place that's alive'

Photo / Maureen Milliken
Photo / Maureen Milliken
Falmouth Shopping Center, on Route 1, would be part of the Falmouth Center mixed-use development.

According to town documents, the 2015 zoning changes had the objective to "transform the Route One corridor from an automobile-based suburban service center to a pedestrian-friendly, pedestrian-scaled New England village center."

"The Town envisions a dense pattern of development in the Route One area with activities day and night, a variety of uses (including residential uses), and an emphasis on a safe and attractive pedestrian environment."

Katherine Detmer, of Archetype Architects, who outlined the project at the hearing prior to the public input, said designers are sensitive to the role of pedestrians versus vehicles, with pedestrian movement and walkability a vital part.

She said green space, separation of buildings, and attention to scale would give the project a village feel.

The entrance of the mall would be moved from the center of a block on Route 1 north to the intersection of Bucknam Road, with a small secondary entrance farther north.

She said the town is already addressing traffic issues in the area independent of the project.

Parking at the complex with largely be in a decked parking garage, so that there will be adequate spaces for increased use, without increasing the footprint of parking.

Parts of the complex will be closed off to cars, and walking paths and pedestrian ways are features.

A trail that will circle the project may also extend to the nature preserve on the other side of the stream, providing the missing piece that links it to the trail that extends south to Portland's Eastern Promenade and Back Cove.

Plans are not only for housing for those over 55, but also studio and one-bedroom units for younger people.

"We want to make it a place that's alive," said Detmer, who's a Falmouth resident. "We also care deeply about how the campus interacts with Route 1."

To that end, buildings along the Route 1 commercial strip will be of similar scale to what's already there, and as the project extends back and north, there will be more green space and the nature of the buildings will change.

Stephen Bushey, with the engineering firm Stantec, also spoke about plans to lessen stormwater runoff and who outlined the project. Also on the project team are Carroll Associates landscape architects and HNTB, an infrastructure design firm.

Yellow flag from abutters

While the build-out over the project would be over seven years, developer Cohen, who also spoke at the hearing, said that the soccer complex "has to be operational next year."

"If not, they'll go elsewhere."

Since the project was unveiled June 1, the soccer fields have been moved farther into the interior, to give more of a buffer to the stream and residential area at the back of the project. A public address system for the fields has been eliminated.

At Monday's hearing, Mike Berry, of Musco Sports Lighting, explained the lighting technology and features of the sports field lights that would mean less glare to homes that are behind the complex.

But former councilor Rodden, while she supports the project, said she, too, had concerns about the sports complex, which she said wasn't part of the town's vision for the commercial area.

Others speaking at the meeting cited the lights, noise, crowds, traffic, games being played until 10 p.m. and people parking on residential streets.

"Is a sports complex of this magnitude the best use [for the property]?" asked a resident of Foreside Road, a frequent refrain from the two dozen people who either opposed or had concerns about the project, most of them abutters or nearby residents.

Neil Coleman, a Foreside Road resident, said he is already bothered by noise at Falmouth Shopping Center, and the sports facility would "permeate Route 88."

But Chris Wasileski, a resident of nearby Johnson Road, said that the type of sports complex proposed is needed in Maine.

"Having grown up in rural Maine, we just didn't have that opportunity," he said. Wasilewski, who's development director for Sea Coast Management, said he was speaking for himself, not for his business.

Sandra Lipsey also spoke in favor. "Part of my excitement about this project is what it would do for the business community," she said. "The stimulus would be wonderful."

Real estate broker Steve Bauman, of Compass Commercial Brokers, who was involved with the sale of the shopping center, said the project would address the lack of office space in the area. "Take a moment to think about what this can do," he said.

Town officials at Monday's hearing let the public do the talking, but have said they're excited about the project, but plan to look at it carefully as well. Three new town councilors, however, were elected to the board since the council first saw the plans June 1.

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