2015-01-16 / Front Page

Knightville: more study needed on roads

By Duke Harrington
Contributing Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — A disparate group of Knightville residents and business owners called together to study traffic in South Portland’s historic downtown district has come to a conclusion: More study is needed.

At a workshop session of the city council Monday, Jan. 12, Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings presented a list of 12 recommendations prepared by the 14-member, ad hoc group. Chief among those conclusions was that the city should commission a comprehensive traffic study for the area.

“I very much believe in this because I’m not sure how you make improvements or changes without data,” Jennings said. “It’s probably something that should have been done before all these changes were made.”

When the city rebuilt Ocean Street in 2012 following a $3.6 million sewer-system overhaul, its engineering firm, Sebago Technics, planned to eliminate angled parking, switching instead to parallel parking. This was done to accommodate the new, wider sidewalks and “bump-outs” built in for trees and LED street lights, created to make more space for sidewalk plows, which tended to run into things quite a lot under the narrower configuration. Sebago engineers also noted that state standards for angled parking required them to be 5 feet longer than those previously painted in front of the Ocean Street shops.

A campaign launched by downtown businesses resulted in a flood of emails in support of angled parking – City Manager Jim Gailey said he alone had more than 100 delivered to his inbox during a two-week period in late July 2012.

In response, the council voted 6-1 to restore angled parking to the streetscape plan. However, Sebago said it could not retain the angled parking and two travel lanes.

“We only have so much street,” said then-Councilor Tom Coward, now a county commissioner, at the time. “I suppose one solution would be to move all of the buildings back 5 feet.”

With room for only one travel lane in the area of Ocean Street between E and D streets, the council acquiesced to Sebago’s recommendation for that block to become a one-way street. The result, as residents had feared, was a rush of traffic to the side streets, as commuters strove to exit the district without having to drive all the way to the end of Ocean Street to Waterman Drive. Taking the brunt of new traffic was D Street, which, being just 27 feet wide, can barely accommodate a fire truck passing though when cars are parked on either side. A stop sign was added at D Street, where the one-way block ends, to keep cars from cutting that corner, and an explosion of signs sought to direct drivers as to where they could and could not go, park and stop.

The result was confusion, especially in the months before GPS systems caught up with the changes. Many drivers not only failed to navigate the new configuration properly — watching cars blow through the new stop sign became something of a spectator sport for local residents — more than a few ended up turning to places they had no intention of going, particularly onto the so-called “letter streets” (A street through E street) between Ocean Street and the actual ocean.

“The amount of people who cannot figure out what a dead end sign means has tripled or quadrupled,” said D Street property owner James Herrera. “Inevitably, we find that they are lost.”

Still, business owners in the district championed retention of the angled parking. At Monday’s workshop, Michael Drinan, who instigated the 2012 email campaign, presented a petition signed by 300 people in favor of keeping the angled spots.

That failed to impress D Street resident Caroline Hendry, who is on the city planning board.

“The merchants defend [angled parking] as though it were the Alamo, but the one-way street is a real impediment to our neighborhood because it divides us,” she said. “It’s a very small area. There’s a lot going on and it’s not very well handled right now.”

Still, the current configuration was defended Monday even by business people who do their business elsewhere, such as D Street resident Peter Robbins, who owns Bohemia Coffee House in Brunswick.

“We in Brunswick know about parking, because we don’t have any,” he said. “We’re going to lose huge amounts of parking if we go back to two-way, which is going to force people to go elsewhere.”

Like Hendry, Robbins dismissed an idea to add more street-side parking to Waterman Drive, although not just because it would “not be very attractive,” as she stated.

“If it comes to walking that far, we’re Americans, we’re not going to,” he said. “[Shoppers] are going to go to the big box stores instead.”

In the end, it was clear, and the council readily agreed, commissioning a traffic study was the way to go, as committee member Bob O’Brien noted.

“That’s the one thing that everybody in the room seems to agree on,” he said.

In many ways, the traffic problem is not a bad one to have, said O’Brien, vice president at downtown insurance agency Noyes, Hall & Allen.

“I’ve been working in the neighborhood for more than 20 years now and it seems like we’ve waited and waited and waited for Knightville to become sort of what we see today,” he said. “So, we have to take a step back and realize that what we are talking about is part of the success that we’ve wanted all these years. We’ve wanted it to be a vibrant mixed-use neighborhood, and that’s what we’re seeing.”

Recent growth of Knightville, which by all accounts was spurred on by the same streetscape makeover that brought the necessity of a making Ocean Street one-way for a single block, is likely to continue, Jennings said.

“I think that honestly, putting on my old hat as a developer, Knightville is an area that is very, very intriguing,” he said. “It’s something that everyone is looking for — an urban area with walkability and lots of little shops. So, I see over time, over the next five to 10 years, I think you are going to see a lot of development interest in Knightville. So, part of our goal with this traffic study is to envision the future.”

The city council directed Gailey to commission the study. He said after the meeting that, as the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebago will get first crack at submitting a proposal. Gailey said there is no way to know at this time how much the study might cost. It would qualify for a Community Development Block Grant, he said, but the annual deadline for CDBG applications passed last week.

In the end, Councilor Maxine Beecher cautioned audience members that the study may not be the salve some supposed.

“Obviously, there are some very differing opinions as to what the solution is,” she said. “I just want to say that studies are wonderful, but for some of you folks, the study may come up with a solution that may not be what you’re hoping for. I just say that because everybody seems to see this as ‘the ultimate,’ but, you know, it can’t please everybody.”

“I’m certainly in favor,” said Councilor Claude Morgan. “It is clearly to everybody’s benefit to put the data together, and it is very possible that the data will bubble up an answer. There may be patterns we are not seeing until we explore the meta-data.”

The traffic study was the only one of the 12 committee recommendations discussed at Monday’s workshop, in part because many have already been implemented. These include enabling GPS updates; erecting the stop sign at Ocean and D Street; creating 32 parking spots on Waterman Drive (primarily to accommodate downtown employees, although residents are requesting a winter parking ban exemption in order to use the spots overnight); improving snow plowing procedures (particularly on the Legion Square rotary); and a reducing of local truck traffic.

In the latter case, Legion Square Market owner Alan Cardinal was able to reduce truck traffic 50 percent by banning left turns from his lot. The traffic light on the Casco Bay Bridge at the end of Erskine Drive also was taken off heavy-traffic mode after 9 a.m., to shorten the wait to get on to the bridge.

Outstanding issues include reducing traffic signage in the area (although a request to put up speed limit signs on the letter streets has been submitted), and a request by residents of the 72 Ocean St. condo block to change parking patterns around their building.

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