Run for your lives, fellow Scarborough residents! The Blob has landed in town! Even as you read this, the juggernaut of unrestrained development is rolling through the former Scarborough Downs, devouring 525 mostly leafy acres of woodland and threatening to transform our once quiet little suburb into a showplace of high-density, consumer-driven delight – filled with vast warehouses of humanity and justified by the dubious promise of a glittering new “town center.”
Too dramatic, friends? Well, maybe a bit. But stay with us for a few minutes and consider what The Downs means for Scarborough. Along the way, we’ll also reveal two of the big secrets that some Town leaders don’t want you to know.
(By the way, we didn’t come up with “The Blob” to describe the current ugly development process that’s plaguing the Town. Town Councilor Paul Johnson’s article in the February 4 issue of The Leader — “The Blob: Otherwise known as growth in Scarborough” — presents a glowing account account of “The Blob” and all the potential riches it holds for the Town.)
It’s a complicated story… but that’s why we’re here
There are many elements that are tangled up in the current negotiations between the Town and The Downs. Here’s the basic outline of the mess in a nutshell:
- Town leaders have decided we’re getting a pool. They refer to it as a “community center,” but make no mistake, it’s a municipal pool. They intend to put it on the ballot in November, assuming we’re actually allowed to vote on it — unlike the plan last time around.
- Town leaders also seem to be set on having The Downs build us a shiny new “town center” from scratch in the middle of The Downs property. More on this fantasy later.
- The developers say that in order to build said fantasy town center, they will need a massive exemption from the Growth Management Ordinance (GMO) that was just updated last year. Instead of the 43 housing units per year the GMO allows them, the developers have requested an unlimited/blanket exemption to build as many apartment units as they want within a 90-acre portion of The Downs. As far as we can tell, the only limiting factor on how many units they will build will be the quantities of 2x4s and white vinyl siding they can get.
- The developers also say that the pool/community center must also be located in the town center for the town center to be successful.
The logical conclusion of the above: to get a pool (which taxpayers will have to pay for), the Town Council must (1) let The Downs build as many apartment units as the market will bear, (2) authorize the developer to build a risky town center for which the Town’s financial contribution has yet to be defined and (3) locate the pool/community center in that town center. Such a deal!
So to get a pool, we have to go completely against the overwhelming sentiment of residents in the recent community survey that the Town is growing much too fast. In addition, we have to plow ahead blindly with a highly speculative and risky new “town center.” Is this making any sense to you?
The Top 9 Reasons Scarborough Doesn’t Need a New “Town Center”
#9 – One of the big reasons cited for needing a “town center” is to provide places for residents to meet and gather. Wait, are we somehow lacking in places to bump into and socialize with friends and neighbors now? Here’s a starter list for current opportunities: the library with its numerous outreach programs, the schools with their many programs for kids and adults, Town Hall, the community services programs all over town, Memorial Park, the Post Office, several well-maintained neighborhood parks/fields, some of the best beaches in the State, miles and miles of nature trails, several private gyms, the Big 20 and the list goes on and on. Does a new 1-acre green space at the proposed town center really add that much to the current list of Town amenities and places to meet/gather?
#8 – Another reason suggested for needing a new “town center” is that we need more retail and dining opportunities in town. Again, take a minute and make a mental list of the retail locations we currently have, from mom and pop enterprises to the big box stores. Same with the restaurants. We have dozens in many categories. OK, so you may have to go to Portland for 4-star dining, but don’t for a moment think that a new town center will attract a James Beardy-type spot. Appleby’s, maybe, but not Eventide. (By the way, Ken’s Place opens March 18th.)
#7 – Lots of the rationale for a town center is pure marketing malarkey. Come on, “Live * Work * Play.” In the real estate biz, a group of 4-letter words like this is known as “Vibrancy Bingo” in the marketing of “lifestyle centers.” (See image above.) Here’s a possible Bingo entry for a new town center: “Hype * Sell * Yawn.”
#6 – Has anyone ever heard of a traditional downtown area that’s anchored by a 70,000 square foot supermarket (same size as Hannaford, more or less)? Well, that’s what our proposed new town center is relying on. Don’t worry, though; it won’t generate much additional traffic at all on our streets and roads.
#5 – Is “exciting” the same as “likely to succeed?” After delivering a decidedly lukewarm written report on The Downs’ proposed town center project, the consultant hired recently by the Town described the project as “exciting.” Said the man who has already pocketed a $25,000 fee related to the project. Consultant Rule Number 3: do not kill the golden goose.
#4 – The consultant also noted that there is considerable financial risk to lenders on projects like this. The report stated; “Given this risk, many lenders will only finance a large developer with a strong balance sheet to guarantee the debt and a track record of successfully completing similar projects [emphasis added].” Do the Local Boys at The Downs meet those qualifications?
#3 – Creating a new town center from scratch is a risky business. Check out this article from Strong Towns: 5 Stories Proving Manufactured Downtowns are a Big Mistake. [Link here.] It looks at the creation from scratch of five town centers or downtowns. And the results are far from what the developers initially promised.
#2 – Some say Scarborough is incomplete. Honestly, now, how often have you said to yourself: “Gee, I wish Scarborough were more complete… and had a bunch more traffic.”?
#1 – We’ve made it for more than 350 years without a “town center.” Do we really need one now? And at what cost?
The Two Big Things You’re Not Aware Of … and Should Be!
Two really important facts have been omitted or significantly downplayed in the current discussions of growth and the Town’s future.
First, there has been no discussion of the cost to the Town of a new town center. Although the Ad Hoc Downtown Development Committee was charged with preparing a conceptual plan of a town center and the costs of it, they did not provide any estimates of the costs involved in creating the proposed town center. There will be significant infrastructure costs to develop a town center.
And the developer will expect the Town to pay those costs. This was clearly anticipated in the original 2018 Credit Enhancement Agreement (CEA). The section of the CEA on the Downtown Project Process includes: “Following the public process, the parties may decide to commit to a new or amended credit enhancement agreement.” This language could only have been inserted for the developer’s benefit – putting the Town on notice that the developers will be expecting to be paid for the infrastructure costs of a new downtown.
Yet there has not been a peep about the costs to the Town of the downtown/town center. How can we possibly be making important decisions about the town center – including authorizing a huge number of apartments through the GMO exemption – without having any discussion of the costs of the town center? How can these important decisions be made in a financial vacuum?
Second, there has been no analysis of the tax impact of the several large projects the Town plans to undertake in the next 2-3 years. The projects, estimates of their costs and timing are:
Note that these are not “official” estimates. It would be nice if the Town provided cost guidance on these projects. In the meantime, our estimates above are probably “close enough for government work.”
The important thing to note here – in addition to the mind-boggling total – is the timing of the projects. Notice how the library expansion and the pool/community center will be voted on before the new school. So we’ll be asked to approve the two nice-to-have projects before the most expensive and most critical project – the new school. This timing has been designed so voters can be tempted to approve the less critical projects before the financial/tax reality of the must-do school project is made clear to them.
Fellow residents, it is imperative that we understand the big picture here! We are faced with massive capital projects over the next 2-3 years. We need the Town to exhibit some transparency here and fess up as to the tax impact of the combination of these projects. As many of you are aware, “transparency” has never really been one of the Scarborough’s things. Let’s try it this time!
Doing Our Part
Long-time readers of LookOutScarborough know that we’re more than just a source of information you won’t find elsewhere. (By the way, have you noticed how much of The Leader’s content is propaganda, er, material, provided by Town staff?) In any event, besides providing information and insight, we try whenever possible to help out in solving the issues of the day. In that vein…
As we’ve watched various presentations about the proposed new “town center,” we have learned that the planners seem to be stuck on coming up with an iconic structure or feature (or, as the Germans say, Fruehstuecksdoppelstulle) for the town center. Something memorable that says “Scarborough!” and draws folks to it. Initially, the iconic draw was to be the reworked Scarborough Downs grandstand. But that didn’t work out due to the structural issues with the grandstand. In fact, it appears that a handful of well-placed firecrackers should be able to demo the thing when the time comes.
So here’s our design contribution:
Highly evocative of the Town’s equine past and at the same time symbolic of the financial good luck that the Downs promises in the future. We present the Scarborough golden horseshoe. People will come from miles around! We think it’s a sure winner.
A fun real estate fact…
Golly, it seems like just yesterday — but it was really January, 2018 — that the Michaud/Risbara brothers bought the 525-acre Scarborough Downs for $6.7 million. Feeling sorry for the Local Boys yet?
That’s all for now, folks. There was a lot to digest this time, but it’s important that as many residents as possible understand The Blob (i.e., out-of-control development). The Town is at a crossroads, literally and figuratively. We risk losing the sense of place that so many residents cherish. So please pay attention and make your feelings known. Many of you speak up at Town Council and other committee meetings. Thank you! And many others contact the Town Council via email (firstname.lastname@example.org). Thank you, as well. If you haven’t made your voice heard yet, please do! Every voice matters!
One last favor: if you know someone who might enjoy this blog, please forward it to them. Why should they miss out!
Happy trails until next time.
(Nom de blog of Steve Hanly)