Empty Square Windows

This is not about Berlin. Berlin has a lot of empty windows, but in some ways, those windows will be easier to fill than those just down the street.

Recognize this?

Rite Aid just moved out of Gorham, and this is what they left. I’m trying to imagine what tenant is going to move into this building, with it’s steeple and rounded corner. I can’t think of anyone, short of another Rite Aid.

How about this one?

Shaw’s was closed by the time I started working in Berlin, but I stopped by two years ago after a day of rock climbing. Now it’s a mass of a empty windows and floor space. Only a supermarket would suffice to fill it.

Here’s the problem with sprawl—when chains fail or stores close there is no one else that can fill their shoes. In Portland, Maine, where I went to college, this has become a problem. Out by the mall (actually in South Portland) there is an empty Circuit City building; just over the town line, in Scarborough, there is an empty Walmart building. It isn’t that the Walmart went out of business—right next door is the Super Walmart, which overshadowed the original store.

Imagine building a building that couldn’t be used for anything else. Imagine the shell of a city entirely made of chain stores.

You don’t have to go far to see it. Head down to North Conway, with the empty buildings spread around the US Route 16 and 302 intersection, and you’ll have a good picture of it. New developments were built as stores moved and expanded, and now the old buildings are standing vacant. The economic crisis didn’t help.

The tough part is how these big box shells pigeon-hole a place: it’s hard to think of them as anything but chain stores. There is a nice restaurant in North Conway, the Black Cap Grille (bad website, good food), in one of the new developments. It is a great place to eat, with good food and a nice atmosphere; unfortunately it looks like an Applebee’s from the outside, not a local restaurant. It’s in a space more likely to house a Payless shoe store. They did a great job transforming the warehouse-like interior into a nice place to eat, but they had to work hard to make the experience inviting.

A Gorham example: Mr. Pizza. The warehouse look doesn’t inspire confidence, no matter how the food tastes.

Places without these types of developments are in many ways so much better off. The empty buildings in Berlin are an eyesore, no doubt, but it’s not hard imagining almost every single one of them filled with just about anything. They are not, like the Rite Aid building in Gorham, so unique and quirky as to preclude a useful future. Since I’ve been there I’ve heard proposals for television stations, restaurants, casinos, theaters, retail stores, breweries and more in various properties around town, and every one of them seemed plausible. The type of development in Berlin has left it open to anything that can come its way.

Take the Gill building, which several local families rehabilitated. They stripped it to the shell and put in office space, retail space and apartments. The building that houses the daily paper is similar: it’s been rehabbed, and now supports several businesses of different stripes. Morin’s Shoe Store is in a beautiful building as well, and the old Berlin Reporter building is on its way up. Each could house just about anything; they aren’t locked in to what was there in the past.

The former Rite Aid building, which the Berlin Industrial Park and Development Authority now owns, is the closest thing Berlin has to Gorham’s Shaw’s. BIDPA has been working to renovate it, and included in that is a plan to change the facade to better fit in with the rest of Main Street. It isn’t something that will stick out for years to come, and it could easily become something besides a pharmacy.

There are a few distinct properties in the downtown. The courthouse, only recently vacated (aside from the housing coordinator and building inspector, two of the hardest working “departments” in the city) is a beautiful building that hopefully will be saved. It, like Saint Kieran’s and city hall, is a gem worthy of preserving. It has character, something the new courthouse lacks. (Of course the new courthouse is ADA compliant, safer for employees and the people using it, and has parking. Win some, lose some.)

There are warehouses out on Route 110, but they are just big. They are not so overdesigned as to only be able to provide space for one business. Try turning a Walmart into anything else. A Sam’s Club, maybe, but not a performance space.

Berlin is lucky. It missed much of the late 20th century development, with the McDonald-ization of restaurants and retail space. It’s development didn’t ever sprawl outward, in the way Gorham, North Conway and the I-93 corridor did. While in 1990 that might have seemed a liability, in 2010 it is an asset. Berlin has a jumpstart on smart development, with a walkable city and properties that can easily transition from one use to the next. There may be gaping holes on Main Street and around the city, but they aren’t gaping holes that are impossible to fill. The future of Berlin has yet to be written, but unlike many communities Berlin isn’t tied by the yoke of late 20th century car culture. It was built in the early 20th century; who knew that would put it on the forefront of development in the 21st?

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