2014-11-21 / Front Page

At last

Handicapped access enhances Thomas Knight Park
By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer


E Street resident Mitchell Sturgeon, confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis, poses in South Portland’s Thomas Knight Park, were a $15,000 project has added new paved paths to help senior citizens and the handicapped bypass the park’s historic, but difficultto traverse cobblestone walkway. The historic cobblestone road and trolley tracks, both more than a century old, in South Portland’s Thomas Knight Park. While a significant site attraction for some, the road was difficult to traverse for seniors and the handicapped, leading last week to completion of a new bypassing paved path. (Duke Harrington photo) E Street resident Mitchell Sturgeon, confined to a wheelchair by multiple sclerosis, poses in South Portland’s Thomas Knight Park, were a $15,000 project has added new paved paths to help senior citizens and the handicapped bypass the park’s historic, but difficultto traverse cobblestone walkway. The historic cobblestone road and trolley tracks, both more than a century old, in South Portland’s Thomas Knight Park. While a significant site attraction for some, the road was difficult to traverse for seniors and the handicapped, leading last week to completion of a new bypassing paved path. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — When Mitchell Sturgeon moved to South Portland’s Knightville district three years ago, he did so, he says, because it is “the perfect neighborhood.”

Stricken with a progressively degenerative form of multiple sclerosis, Sturgeon, 51, is now confined to a wheelchair. But Knightville, he says, has everything he needs close at hand, from grocery stores, to shops and restaurants, to his primary care physician; even an optometrist. And conditions only got better following a 2013 makeover that improved and widened area sidewalks. That made the downtown district easier to navigate, while also spurring a miniboom in development that led to even more shops moving in.

But still, there remained one place that was all but off limits — Thomas Knight Park, located at the intersection of Ocean Street and Waterman Drive.

But with a construction project completed last week, the park, often called one of South Portland’s hidden gems, is poised to become more useful to the handicapped and elderly alike, while potentially cementing the link between some of the area’s more trendy residential hotspots.

All it took was correcting a good idea.

In 1997, when the state replaced the old Million Dollar Bridge — which connects South Portland to Portland across the Fore River — with the new Casco Bay Bridge, it tore up the road where the old bridge dumped out, revealing cobblestones and trolley tracks more than a century old.

“That was buried under layers and layers of pavement,” said City Manager Jim Gailey on Tuesday.

It took a lot of work to expose the old infrastructure, but it made for an historic showcase that became a centerpiece of the new park. It was intended to be the site’s main attraction, but, for people like Sturgeon, it instead became a major distraction.

“Riding across it was pretty hard on the chair,” Sturgeon said. “It was pretty hard on me. It was pretty jarring. And that’s in an electric chair. Imagine people with manual wheelchairs, or walkers.

“My wife and I enjoy walking over to Portland,” Sturgeon said, “but every time I had to make a decision whether I wanted to go across the cobblestones, or across the grass, which really isn’t a good option either, in a wheelchair.”

In May 2013, on the “Enjoying the Ride” blog he keeps to document efforts to maintain a positive attitude in the face of a debilitating disease, Sturgeon posted video of his efforts to traverse the cobblestones. It was, to say the least, a bumpy ride.

That spring, Sturgeon wrote Gailey to suggest paving over a portion of the historic walk. The irony, he noted, was that the cobblestone access made it near impossible for people in wheelchairs to get to the handicapped ramp that connects the park to the bridge above. Also all but out of bounds is the Knightville Landing public boat docks at the end of the walkway, an otherwise enjoyable place to simply sit and read a book, even when one does not have a boat to tie up.

According to Gailey, a lot of thought was put into making the Casco Bay Bridge handicapped accessible when it was built. He and other city officials actually got out alongside their peers from the Maine Department of Transportation and tested wheelchairs on the ramp, he said. But no one thought about the path across the park leading to the ramp.

“I remember we spent so much time worrying about how the ramp going up to the bridge was going to work,” Gailey said. “But we never really had an eye to or challenged MDOT on the design of the (cobblestone) roadway.”

According to Rick Towle, South Portland’s director of parks and recreation, the cobblestone drive did meet all requirements for the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“However,” he said, “we can now recognize there’s a difference between ADA compliant and being truly handicapped accessible.”

To his credit, Sturgeon did not let things go at his first email. He kept after Gailey month-in and month-out for nearly a year.

In April, Gailey advised Sturgeon that the council had secured a $15,000 Community Development Block Grant to rehabilitate the park. More recently, he congratulated the E Street resident on his persistence. “If it wasn’t for you sharing your experiences and keeping the gentle push going, the path may never (have) hit the radar,” wrote Gailey, in an email.

Still, Gailey said in a separate interview, the monthly check-ins were not necessary.

“That’s not what swayed me on the idea,” he said. “He swayed me with his first email. When (Sturgeon) raised his concern, it was one that we took very seriously.”

The yearlong delay was simply a matter of securing funding, then getting the work scheduled, Gailey said. Initially, a private contractor was solicited, but the estimate came in at $36,000 — more than twice the available budget.

Instead, the city’s public works crew took on the project.

“(Public Works Director) Doug Howard and his team deserve a great deal of credit,” Towle said.

According to Towle, the four-foot-wide asphalt path was put in parallel to the Casco Bay bridge onramp, along the park’s western edge, because aerial photos showed that’s were people were walking anyway. Then, to avoid paving over any of the cobblestone area, a connecting path was added linking the new path to Ocean Street.

“It’s a wonderful thing,” Sturgeon said. “It opens up an area that was previously very unfriendly to handicapped people.”

With the path in place, making travel less difficult, the Old Port section of Portland is just a 25-minute walk (or ride, as the case may be) from Knightville, Sturgeon said.

And, what’s more, the new path should benefit senior citizens as well, Gailey said. When the South Portland Farmers Market was launched in 2011, it spent its first season in Thomas Knight Park. However, seniors complained that the cobblestones made shopping treacherous. Many visited the market once, and then never went back.

Towle said final costs for the park renovation will not be known until next spring, when a final skim coat of pavement it laid over the new paths.

Meanwhile, Sturgeon said he’s hopeful that, at some future point, a length of pavement will be put down to cross the cobblestones between the end of the path and the handicapped ramp, as well as the final, short section to the boat landing.

Until then, he said, Knightville has got just about everything he could ask for.

“I think the improvement really helps people in getting to Portland, and, I think, walking across the bridge our way as well,” he said. “Maybe, I’m optimistic, but I really think this neighborhood is poised to become one of the hot areas, like the Eastern Prom.

“Right now, to make it really complete, all we really need is to get a dentist’s office down here,” he added, with a laugh.

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