Times Record: CEI has good designs on Brunswick (Jan. 31, 2014)

Maybe we’re a little biased toward the growth of clean industry in Brunswick, but early criticism of a new Federal Street headquarters for Coastal Enterprises feels like a smack in the face to anyone concerned with economic development in the Mid-coast.

Yes, we are well aware of the values inherent in historic preservation, and we think Federal Street is a lovely residential corridor in downtown Brunswick. Yes, we know of past boondoggles that have sacrified historic buildings in the name of “progress” for Brunswick. One need only look at history of the 30 Federal St. in order to understand the fear of “bad development.”

But Federal Street is not a museum and Brunswick needs to leverage all its assets in pursuit of the right kind of growth.

Brunswick can be the intellectual, financial and cultural center of the Mid-coast — and it should, given such native advantages as Amtrak, Bowdoin College and its assets, a bevy of galleries and shops, a Norman Rockwell Maine Street, critical mass in new industries such as small-scale specialty food production, and our maritime culture, which is second to none.

But we’re not going anywhere with our feet stuck in the past.

More than a half-dozen people respectfully addressed their concerns with the Planning Board during a public hearing inside the Curtis Memorial Library on Tuesday. They would have done well to take a look around at what modernization of historic property can yield.

The old Curtis library and the new one — joined in architectural flair with glass atriums, updated heating and cooling systems and modern, user-friendly spaces that increase the building’s functionality — offer an intriguing mix of new and old styles, and a template for developing historic properties that resulted in a signature building in our public domain.

It’s a lesson the state at large often seems to not want to learn: The best development complements traditions, not replaces them.

A modern building in a historic neighborhood doesn’t have to be seen as an inglorious trammeling of the past. It could be seen as a symbol of flexible, creative thinking — a bridge that shows Brunswick moving from the past it so loves to a future that needs to be so much brighter.

Yes, architects could do a little better to integrate the proposed Coastal Enterprises building into the historic character of the street — which, one might note, is already a well-used access road to Bowdoin College and a fairly busy corridor carrying north- and southbound through-traffic as an alternative to crazyquilt Maine Street.

But then, one might ask how well the current building on the site — the town Parks and Rec building — accomplished that task. It didn’t.

Meanwhile, the proposal seems to comport with all applicable zoning rules and regulations. The arguments that remain are all fairly intangible in terms of what would be lost with a modern CEI headquarters on Federal Street.

What better sign of old Brunswick’s move to a modern era of clean development than to support a progressive organization whose mission is to leverage Maine’s traditional industries into new opportunities for today’s Maine?

A prosperous future for CEI means 50 more workers staying over for dinner, maybe even relocating. It means being a center of gravity for dozens of nonprofit groups statewide. It means being a symbol of something new and different amid the moulted skin of a history that pays so little mind to present-day prosperity.

A brighter future means shedding the past while preserving what’s good about it.

As the process of welcoming CEI to Brunswick unfolds, we are sure small architectural changes can be made to appease neighbors on Federal Street.

Though, to be honest, we’d be just as happy with a steel-and-glass skyscraper with a brick-front atrium that flaunts the rise of Maine’s most dynamic community.

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