Bangor is trying to encourage denser development as city officials grapple with a dearth of affordable housing.
Homes in Bangor's Whitney Park neighborhood. Bangor has approved a handful of new subdivisions away from the city core, testing the city's desire to encourage denser development. Credit: Gabor Degre / BDN

Bangor approved developers’ plans to build 121 units last month as the city faces a housing crunch that has plagued renters and homebuyers.

One development that has drawn opposition from neighbors would bring 30 duplex units to a plot of land off Lancaster Avenue, near Essex Woods, while another would include 61 two-story townhomes in a subdivision on Broadway, near Husson University. A third project under construction on Ohio Street, near Meadow Farm Road, is expected to yield 44 units.

The subdivisions would all feature townhouse-style homes served by privately maintained roads, slated for previously undeveloped parcels and be located a distance from Bangor’s urban core.

The Planning Board’s approval came after the city had passed policies to encourage denser development, like allowing boarding homes on major streets and reducing minimum lot sizes and the amount of off-street parking required for multifamily homes.

It’s a test what Bangor is doing to encourage denser development as city officials try to tackle the dearth of affordable housing while concentrating development in specific areas of Bangor.

The new developments might not perfectly fit that vision, but Bangor residents shouldn’t worry the city is undergoing more sprawl, according to a Bangor real estate agent, developers, urban planning experts and its city manager.

City councilors met last month with the planning department to discuss how they expected Bangor’s growth boundaries to change as part of the comprehensive plan process, which will influence future development, zoning and permitting policies, City Manager Debbie Laurie said.

The city has identified areas ripe for development, and particularly those zoned for housing and already connected to utilities like sewer, while avoiding protected lands like those along the Kenduskeag Stream and Penjajawoc Marsh, she said.

“We are just trying to find the boundary around which we would like to build out to,” she said. “And we recognize the downtown, with the closer structures, the configurations that are 100-plus years old, represent a challenge. So the city has done a lot to work with the developers looking to redevelop those spaces.”

The city still has to determine how dense it wants housing development to be, but hopes to encourage amenities like convenience and grocery stores and other services so people can live closer together in areas targeted for growth.

After the Great Recession, there was a sea change that recognized sprawl in metropolitan areas like Bangor used up environmental and financial resources and “weakened the central city,” said Evan Richert, a former Orono town planner and onetime director of the former Maine State Planning Office who lives in Brewer.

He pointed toward the growth of Bangor’s downtown district and waterfront developments like the Maine Savings Amphitheater and nearby Cross Insurance Center as examples that have enhanced the central city.

“There has been somewhat of a greater desire, on the part of the marketplace, to be closer to jobs, to services, to transportation networks, and so forth,” Richert said. “If Bangor is getting more development, proposals and activity, that’s a good thing.”

Not all new housing will immediately fit a city’s vision, said Jeff Levine, a former Portland city planner who now teaches at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works as a consultant.

“There’s definitely some lag time between having plans and being able to actually turn that into changes in your local ordinances,” he said. “So [if] someone comes in the meantime and proposes something that meets your local codes, it’s kind of your responsibility as a planner to review it in good faith, even though you might not be 100 percent thrilled with the language of the ordinance.”

In short, most housing is good, because it encourages further development and meets demand for units from residents, Levine said.

“Not all of us will necessarily be in a downtown location that’s entirely walkable,” he said. Still, developments like the Maine Woods duplexes, near Essex Woods, are “better than single-family homes on extremely large lots.”

The developers behind Maine Woods and the Northbrook Apartments at 870 Broadway said they chose their locations because it was cheaper for them to build on undeveloped land than to renovate older buildings and bring them up to code.

Northbrook Apartments developer Nathan Freeman said he also chose his project’s location because of its proximity to Bangor High School and a nearby shopping complex, expected to feature a Starbucks, slated to open later next year.

“All those things combined are what led me to proceed with the project there in that location,” he said. “I was designing these buildings [for] what I thought the desire would be, for the location and the climate, and then comparing it to what else was out there, which is very few multifamily developments that have garages available.”

Maine Woods developer Emily Ellis said developers found it easier to build in locations like the Lancaster Avenue lot on which she has chosen to construct 30 duplexes.

Surrounding homeowners fiercely opposed the project, which the Planning Board approved after four meetings, for reasons including that the units would be too dense for the area and that the site was full of ledge and would require blasting, posing a threat to nearby homes.

Ellis argued the location was close to downtown and would be less dense than the surrounding properties. She also plans to build a walking trail in the subdivision to preserve access to open space for neighbors and a sidewalk connecting to others nearby to alleviate concerns about increased traffic and pedestrian safety.

Neighbors “would have, I think, a worse time if we put a subdivision where everybody had their own lot, and they would not have access to the land,” she said.

Developers’ choice of less dense and walkable areas like Essex Woods and Broadway reflect the challenges of developing in the downtown district, said Jill Mayhew, a broker and president of the Greater Bangor Association of Realtors.

Retrofitting historic buildings can be expensive, especially when the cost of building materials is rising, making it easier for developers to build in undeveloped areas of Bangor, she said.

On top of that, zoning restrictions can be a problem for building in denser neighborhoods, Mayhew said.

“If I have to put $50,000 into a sprinkler system in an older house in town, that takes away from maintaining the furnace, the roof and common areas,” she said.

“It takes a big chunk of change, and you don’t get any realization for that investment, other than it meets code requirements. So it’s less expensive to outfit a new building with all the current codes than it is to take some of the older buildings and conform those.”

The city is trying to address those issues by working with developers to grant them funds to help with retrofitting costs, like improving building facades and window restorations, Laurie said.

Glendon Braley, the developer behind the Ohio Street project, echoed Mayhew’s comments, adding that onerous code requirements and rising material costs stymied development efforts in cities like Presque Isle and Bangor, where he has built homes.

Bangor’s code office recently asked him to replace his circuit breakers and run a blower test to determine how much air was escaping the buildings off Ohio Street, adding unexpected expenses he would have to pass on to future tenants.

“As a developer, you just gotta go with it, but it gets to the point where if the price of developing gets too high, which it’s getting to that point, then you can’t get enough rent out of the places to make it all work,” he said.

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Lia Russell

Lia Russell is a reporter on the city desk for the Bangor Daily News. Send tips to