Yarmouth Commons on Route 1 is a mixed-use apartment and commercial complex located on what was an empty lot. Credit: Courtesy of Build Maine

U.S. Route 1 runs through quaint Maine coastal towns with stretches of retail stores and parking lots disrupting the feeling of a downtown.

The Portland suburb of Yarmouth is working to change that, employing “character-based development” to create cozier, mixed-use developments in commercial corridors.

Under the town’s plan, new residence and retail buildings would go into large parking lots and empty spaces near the highway. Buildings would be close to the road with parking in the rear to make them more accessible. One such development completed in January — Yarmouth Commons — has 18 market-rate apartments and four ground-floor commercial spaces.

Character-based development comes with little red tape. It neither limits the number of building residents nor prescribes minimum lot sizes and includes either liberal or non-existent setback requirements.

An empty lot on Route 1 in Yarmouth (left of the roadway) now has a complex with 18 apartments and four commercial spaces known as Yarmouth Commons. It is part of the town’s plan to use empty spaces and create more of a downtown feel. Credit: Courtesy of Edward Libby

“It turns zoning on its head,” said Erin Zwirko, director of the town’s planning department.

The town is not alone in supporting these types of mixed-use developments to boost much-needed housing. A slew of proposed bills and a landmark housing law about to hit the books are offering various ways to remove barriers to housing developments.

“We want to make sure to create laws that empower communities to address the challenge that we’re all facing, which is to make sure that people have affordable, attainable and safe places to live,” said Rep. Traci Gere, D-Kennebunkport, who co-chairs a new housing panel.

She is sponsoring a bill that is still being drafted and would make better use of corridor space around towns and villages as part of the Policy Action 2023 advocacy plan created by GrowSmart Maine and Build Maine that aims to reduce barriers to development and create financial incentives to reuse commercial areas that are not thriving.

The plan recommends having no density limits and no on-site parking or open space requirements to better repurpose existing areas rather than expanding into green space or leaving commercial strips to languish, said Nancy Smith, CEO of GrowSmart Maine, a development advocacy group.

“Nobody wins in that scenario,” she said.

Maine has a lot of excess land with parking spaces that are empty most of the time, said Kara Wilbur, co-founder of Build Maine, an architecture and development company in Lewiston.

What is helping developers in Yarmouth, she said, is that the town updated its zoning in 2013 and in 2018 to allow more buildings close to the road and more density. Gere’s proposed bill would incentivize communities to address zoning limitations.

“One of the main barriers to housing production anywhere is zoning,” Wilbur said.

Relaxed zoning is what attracted Nate Green and his partner Chris Marshall of 103 Development in Portland to propose the Yarmouth Commons mixed-use project to the town in 2021. The development, at the corner of Route 1 and Portland Street, is located on a former scrub field.

“With that zoning we could put a lot of units in not a lot of space, which basically made the project feasible,” Green said.

A commercial area such as Route 1 also gets less pushback from neighbors and community members, he said.

The project encompasses studio, one-bedroom and two-bedroom apartments and four commercial spaces where a nail salon, executive coach, physical therapist and charcuterie eatery now operate. There is a patio in the front and plans call for a small park to be added. All housing and retail spaces are occupied.

Green also has two other projects in the works: six apartments in a former church in Bath and 83 apartments in former Nasson College dorms in the Springvale village of Sanford. Other Maine towns, including Gray, have similar projects in different stages of development aimed at making their downtowns and adjacent areas into places where people want to live.

Towns must prepare plans to meet a more far-reaching effort by Gov. Janet Mills, lawmakers and housing organizations to increase housing by July 1. The new law, LD 2003, requires municipalities to remove regulatory barriers to building such as land use and zoning.

Yarmouth plans to hold five public workshops over the next couple months to get input on how the town of 7,000 people will meet its requirements. Zwirko said it is important to engage the community in big decisions. Doing so with character-based development helped get it approved, she said.

“We have to ensure the community understands how this works,” she said.

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Lori Valigra

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...