2016-01-29 / Front Page

Committee: Restore two-way traffic in Knightville

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Three alternate configurations for the block of Ocean Street between Legion Square and D Street, prepared by engineering firm Sebago Technics, shows the results of Jan. 13 voting by an ad hoc committee formed to recommend a solution to parking problems in the town’s historic Knightville district. (Duke Harrington photo) Three alternate configurations for the block of Ocean Street between Legion Square and D Street, prepared by engineering firm Sebago Technics, shows the results of Jan. 13 voting by an ad hoc committee formed to recommend a solution to parking problems in the town’s historic Knightville district. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — After 18 months of sometimes heated debate, an ad hoc committee will recommend a plan for parking in South Portland’s historic Knightville district that it calls, “the best, least-worst solution.”

The Knightville Traffic and Parking Committee, which includes more than a dozen downtown residents and business owners, voted Jan. 13 on three plans for parking on Ocean Street, between Legion Square and D Street, drawn up by the city’s contracted engineering firm, Sebago Technics.

Those options included leaving the street as it has been since a $3.6 million sewer project resulted in a new streetscape. The plan drawn up by Sebago at the time called to replace the angled parking spaces on Ocean Street with parallel parking spots. City Manager Jim Gailey said that change was meant to make way for a new sidewalk, widened by 12 inches to better accommodate foot traffic and, more impor- tantly, the city’s sidewalk plow, which was known to have a penchant for crashing into trees, light poles, buildings and other objects in or near its anticipated path.

Downtown business owners rose up soon after the design came to light, complaining they had been neither consulted nor even informed of the change in parking configurations. Although Sebago’s plan for parallel parking resulted in more parking spaces on Ocean Street, the spots were spread out over several blocks. Business owners cited fears that customers might give the district a pass entirely, rather than walk an extra block or two to their destination.

However, by the time business owners made themselves heard via petitions and email blasts to the city council, city hall had already committed to the construction project. As a compromise, the council agreed to re-establish angled parking once work was done. However, because of the wider sidewalks and bump-outs added for lighting, trees and other amenities — not to mention updated design standards applied to the new angled spots — there ended up being too little room for two lanes of traffic.

To facilitate the angled spaces, which were flipped to face the opposite direction, the city council made Ocean Street a one-way block, with traffic running from Legion Square to D Street. In a later tweak, following a number of near misses, the city installed a stop sign at the D Street intersection. While this satisfied business owners, Knightville residents complained the new traffic pattern funneled cars onto the side streets, which they contended were too narrow to accommodate the added congestion.

After much debate, then Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings formed the ad hoc traffic committee in August 2014, in hopes its members might be able to find a compromise acceptable to all.

At the Jan. 13 meeting, the clear consensus was that the parking spaces and traffic patterns should be restored to their original configurations before the 2012 rebuild, even if that meant narrowing the sidewalks and tearing up the bumpouts.

“The city did, in fact, screw this up,” said committee member Jack Reckitt, who owns Maine Sign & Display at the corner of B and Ocean streets. “What we’d really like to say to the council is, ‘Suck it up, spend what it takes, and fix it.’”

“The city screwed this up when they designed it, and the businesses are paying for the mistake the city made because they didn’t consult the businesses before they put a bunch of granite in the street,” agreed Michael Drinan, owner of Drinan Properties. “No one even talks about, take a jackhammer out, cut the sidewalks back, and then we stop fighting with each other.”

However, South Portland’s new assistant city manager, Joshua Reny, who inherited committee oversight after Jennings left South Portland, said that is the one possibility that’s simply not possible.

“If we could make it two-way traffic with angled parking, everybody would get up and say, ‘Great, we solved it,’ but we can’t do that,” he said.

Although the city found some wiggle room by changing the arc on the angled spaces from 60 degrees to 45 degrees, it must comply with state specs updated since the 1990s, when parking spots were last painted onto Ocean Street. The new design standard calls on angled parking spaces to be almost 5 feet longer than what existed on Ocean Street before it was rebuilt.

After the Jan. 13 meeting, City Planner Tex Haeuser said while there is no statute that absolutely compels South Portland to use the longer parking spaces, not doing so could open it up to a lawsuit.

“If there ever was an accident and the city had not employed the current recommended design standards when restriping the spaces, it could end up being liable or any damages, should there be an accident,” he said.

With Square One off the table, the committee was left to vote on the three options presented by Sebago — leaving the parking configuration as it is now; employing parallel parking on both sides of Ocean Street, as Sebago originally recommended in 2012; and what Drinan deemed “the best, least-worst option.”

That plan calls for tearing out sidewalk bump-outs and eliminating parallel parking spots on the Fore River side of Ocean Street. Ordinarily, that still would not leave enough room to restore two lanes of traffic. However, Sebago suggested the one-way could be eliminated if the angled parking spots on Ocean Street are restriped to be perpendicular to the sidewalk.

“Has anyone ever seen anything like that, anywhere?” Drinan asked, expressing the general dubiousness of the committee.

According to Reny, tearing out the bump-outs and rebuilding the sidewalk will cost about $31,000. And that’s before the city figures out how to replace the lost street lights.

“I have to tell you, that is not the option city staff would recommend,” he told the committee.

Reny did not say which of the two remaining options city staffers like best. However, the parallel parking option that had once been Plan A was deemed a non-started by most business owners. A traffic study commissioned by the committee confirmed the anecdotal evidence of “letter street” residents, who live on A, B, C, D, and E streets and have cited increased traffic since the one-way was put into effect. However, the study also confirmed what business owners have predicted about the unwillingness of customers to walk. Even at peak business hours, more than half of the parking spaces on Ocean Street are empty, the report noted, intimating that shoppers do indeed want to park directly in front of a business, or not at all.

Still, it was the one the group chose. Armed with colored stickers — green for a first-place vote (good for 3 points), yellow for second (and 2 points), and red for third (1 point), the two-way with perpendicular parking choice garnered seven of 14 possible first place votes, and 35 points overall.

The parallel parking option scored 25 points, including three first-place votes, while leaving well enough alone rang in at 22 overall, albeit with four first-place nods.

Reny said he would write up a report on the committee’s decision and present it to the city council at a future workshop session, the exact date of which is yet to be decided.

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