Lower Square as the center of town

The old Masonic temple, new Orpheum, and old Strafford County Bank dominate Lower Square, where northbound traffic is peeled off to circle up around the old mills before rejoining Central Avenue. The photo was taken in front of the former newspaper plant, now named Foster Place, and the children’s museum.

It’s been like a downtown waiting to happen, if only the right neighbors moved in.

And now, actually, they are, thanks to the new Orpheum project and what’s happening at the old newspaper plant now dubbed Foster Place.

Historically, some dramatic fires shaped the street, too, removing an imposing city hall that included the largest auditorium in the state (“opera house,” as it was known) and a Baptist church. Mills across the street were also razed over time, making the entire scene airier.

It’s not as alone as it looks here. There’s a former firehouse now serving as a fine restaurant and a parking garage behind it. The new Orpheum diagonally across the street adds some vertical unity along Washington Street.

 

Along with the Cocheco Millworks, this has been the center of town.

 

Like the restaurant renovations I had considered in fiction

A pocket courtyard and stairwell tower now face Central Avenue in what had been unused space where an addition joined the original building. The windows, caps, and doorways are new.

I’ve been watching the renovation of the former newspaper plant downtown with special interest. Remember, I am a retired journalist.

To begin with, the existing edifice was highly problematic, beginning with the question of what to do with the former industrial pressroom and moving on to the way the structure had been expanded wily-nily over the decades. Apart from its first (modest) construction, the evolving building was never exactly what you’d call planned. Not with a long view.

Apartments, many of them overlooking riverfront Henry Law Park, are rising atop what had been the newspaper’s press.
As it was before.

Owned by one family for generations, the daily Foster’s Daily Democrat was headquartered on a prominent corner of Lower Square. In fact, the publisher and his family even lived in quarters in the flat-iron style building where traffic now curves from Central Avenue onto Washington Street and then Main as it winds around the historic mills and river.

The longest side of the plant, though, stands along Henry Law Avenue but has never interacted with it. Nope, it was just a concrete block wall with a few slits. Or fortress, meaning until recently, the street was largely a traffic siphon. But that’s changed now that the children’s museum on the other side draws thousands of families and school groups each year, as do free concerts in the small park. People actually stop and pay to park their vehicles along the street, and not because they have jobs nearby.

Facing the park.

Again, with the city planner’s goal of making downtown both pedestrian- and family-friendly, the interface has been changing.

At last, a developer has realized that to make the old newspaper office viable to new tenants, big changes were needed. And finally, that’s happening. Naturally, it’s a multi-use approach.

This is what’s emerging. The intention, I’d say, is to make the unified structure look like smaller, traditional side-by-side buildings. I do like the recessed balconies overlooking the park and its state-of-the-art destination playground.

 

And, at the far end, this, emphasizing the views.

 

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family members also realize they need to upgrade their restaurant, and that leads to an ambitious project to repurpose the building next door. It’s not that unlike what’s happening on Henry Law Avenue as the blank concrete block wall is opened to pedestrian traffic.

What do you think?

 

Envisioning your reader

One of the basic bits of advice given to a writer is to envision your reader. It’s one that’s always troubled me, though. Could it be because I carry multiple identities as a writer? Poet, novelist, Quaker, retired journalist, with overlapping interests?

As a poet, I can’t describe the audience that shows up for a reading — the individuals seem to represent all types. Picture my readers? They could be anywhere in the subway car I’m riding!

OK, maybe it’s a younger, or at least more hip, crowd, but not entirely.

Read More »

There aren’t many big metro areas in the Pacific Northwest

Like Joshua and Jaya in my novel Nearly Canaan, I was surprised by the relative importance of smaller urban areas in the Pacific Northwest. Look how quickly the population figures drop.

Looking at the states of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, here are the ten largest cities by metropolitan area population. These figures have mushroomed since I lived in the region four decades ago and even desert communities have been deemed desirable destinations for retirees. As for geographic perspective, remember that the Seattle standard statistical metropolitan area includes the wilderness of Mount Rainier National Park. Anyplace else have an active volcano?

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  1. Seattle, 3.9 million. Ranked 20th in the U.S. Feels more like Boston, Chicago, or Atlanta in its impact.
  2. Portland, 2.4 million. Ranked 30th in the U.S.
  3. Boise, Idaho, 730,426
  4. Spokane, Washington, 559,891
  5. Salem, Oregon, 432,102
  6. Eugene-Springfield, Oregon, 379,611
  7. Olympia, Washington, 286,419
  8. Tri-Cities, Washington, 296,224
  9. Bremerton, Washington, 269,805
  10. Yakima, Washington, 251,446. The major metropolis for the middle third of a large state.

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Note that six of the ten are west of the Cascade range. None are in the eastern half of Oregon.

Just to the north, Vancouver, British Columbia, has 2.4 million population, making it Canada’s third largest metropolis.

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What would your community match on the list?

Filling in a modest skyline

What would otherwise be the rear, on the south, instead projects its own grandeur as it fronts on the lawns of the community center and public library. The blank brick wall on the right is the side of the old Masonic temple. 

Fitting the new Orpheum into an essentially triangular site made for an interesting design challenge. Fitting into an existing downtown look and scale of size was another. And optimizing return on investment and budget was a third.

The footprint led to an interesting solution as well as an emerging new skyline.

The developer’s results look like two parallel buildings when seen from the west, as well as a long backdrop for the existing downtown when seen from the east.

And this is before the landscaping kicks in.

From the front, facing north, varied textures suggest narrower side-by-side buildings rather than a single monolith. I find it rather busy, but maybe that was the intention.

 

From the bank drive-thru, two new buildings seem to be rising. The existing city hall sits to the right, and then the new district courthouse. 

 

Another look from the bank drive-thru.

 

Sitting back a block from Central Avenue, the new Orpheum adds depth to an urban view.