Lewiston Sun Journal: Restoration is hitting all the notes

Republished from the Lewiston Sun Journal
Our View
Friday, November 23, 2007

As projects go, restoring the Dominican Block is small potatoes for David Clem. For Lewiston-Auburn, however, the rebirth of this historic landmark is a six-course dinner.

Clem, whose son attends Bates College, was struck by the potential of the dormant Lincoln Street lady, whose peeling paint and air of abandonment belied her previous glory. In 1882, the Dominican Fathers constructed the grand edifice for its parish school in the burgeoning 19-year-old industrial city.

Later, the block became central to the vibrant Franco-American community of the neighborhood, smack between the triple-deckers of Little Canada and towering smokestacks of the mills. Its gradual descent into neglect reflected the changes of its surroundings, and the times.

Enter Clem, a developer with a noted reputation for "green" and "smart growth" projects around New England. When uttered by officials or politicians, these terms sound like idyllic slogans. Paired with substantial investment from a qualified benefactor, however, the potential becomes thrilling.

L-A is prime ground for developers like Clem. The cities have the raw materials for an architectural renaissance of the highest regard; our landmarks were built to last, not fall into irreparable gloom or emptiness.

The Bates Mill projects were massive undertakings, fueled by massive capital investments and equally massive prospective tenants. The Southern Gateway was a public-private partnership. Their momentum hasn't spread, however, into smaller, adjacent properties around downtown. Cost is the oft-cited reason.

Clem's work is showing what's possible. Yes, deep pockets help, but the other capital he's spending to renovate the Dominican Block is social. Clem bills the restoration as an exercise in civic engagement, his effort to strengthen the bonds between Bates and the community.

This latter point cannot be underestimated. Even tighter bonds between Bates and the community is of inestimable value, especially through something as strikingly visible as the Dominican Block renovation. Lewiston-Auburn really doesn't need another building competing for commercial tenants.

But it can use much more of this.

Maine has the institutional desire, but a paucity of incentives, for adaptive re-use of properties, given the immense cost compliance that modern building codes entail. Lawmakers are now endeavoring to remedy this situation, through policies like tax credits for developers.

Until then, it's up to trailblazers to show what vision, capital and strong community support can achieve.

Eric and Carrie Agren lit a spark with their restoration of Lyceum Hall. Clem is fanning these flames. (Though, as a trustee of the Berklee School of Music in Boston, he might prefer a more lyrical analogy: "I'm trying to play one small song in a whole concert in what it takes to revitalize a downtown," he says.)

So here's one: through this amazing effort, Clem can help L-A and Bates make beautiful music together.

Bravo.

Chet Clem

Somerville, MA, USA