Maine’s New Urban Future

MEREDA Conference Highlights Local & National Trends Toward Walkable Urbanism 

The Maine Real Estate & Development Association (MEREDA) hosted its annual spring conference on Thursday, May 17th, in South Portland.

Entitled “New Urbanism: Creative Models for Innovation and Economic Growth,” the forum brought together Maine and national experts to discuss the forces & trends driving the re-urbanization of our city centers and how we think about the “American city.”

The day began by recognizing MEREDA’s top five most notable development projects in Maine for 2011.

Honorees included:  Opechee Construction Corporation for the Hampton Inn/Sebago Brewing in Portland; Waterfront Maine for Merrill’s Wharf in Portland; Mattson Development LLC for the MaineGeneral Medical Center Musculoskeletal Center in Augusta; Community Housing of Maine for Maine Hall, Affordable Housing for seniors in Bangor; and Developers Collaborative for Gilman Place in Waterville.

Lara Hodgson, co-founder of Insomnia, an Atlanta-based firm specializing in the investment, development and management of complex projects, kicked-off the formal presentations with an energetic and interactive session focused on entrepreneurial innovation and how to see challenges as opportunities.

Lara noted that real estate is the one industry sector that literally changes the world and encouraged attendees to turn natural barriers into assets and physical barriers into connection points.  The session was designed to give attendees practical tools to break down problems and communicate ideas to drive action and innovation in their business.

A panel of local experts explored the trends of new urbanism in Maine, including Alex Jaegerman, Planning Division Director for Portland; John Rohman, Maine Certified Interior Designer & Professional Engineer; and Patrick Venne, a land use attorney who works in the Auburn Planning Department.

Each explained the development and redevelopment that is driving a renewed embrace of their downtowns, including a focus on developing cultural magnets like arts and retail institutions, pedestrian friendly infrastructure, welcoming public places, redevelopment of their riverfront and waterfront assets, and attracting a diversity of knowledge economy businesses.

There was collective optimism for the continued development of their city centers, as well as their region’s ability to successfully embrace their urban past while still progressively planning for a new urban future.

Finally, Chris Leinberger, a Visiting Fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution and president of LOCUS, a national transit-oriented development advocacy organization, wrapped up the conference with a presentation entitled, “Walkable Urban Development: The Economic Imperative.”

Complete with video clips from Back to the Future and I Love Lucy to underscore his points, Chris explained how drivable suburbanism is now yielding to increasing demand for walkable urbanism, where residents and visitors can obtain everything they need to live, work, and play within fifteen hundred to three thousand feet.

In large part this migration is being fueled by the urban expectations of the millennial generation, empty nesters and retirees seeking to downsize, suburban boredom, and a knowledge-based and creative class economy that is less dependent on motor transport.

Chris emphasized the need for careful private-public sector partnerships to lead and manage the development of walkable urban centers as engines of economic development

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