2016-03-04 / Front Page

South Portland traffic snarl tightens in Knightville

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The issue that won’t die may finally come to a head at the next city council meeting, but one group has what may seem an odd request of municipal leaders – do nothing.

“I have one goal this coming week – getting the city council to make no decision at this time,” said Michael Drinan.

The owner of a properties firm with offices at the corner of Ocean and D streets for more than 25 years, Drinan has seen the traffic pattern through the heart of the city’s historic Knightville district change many times.

Prior to 1997, traffic came off the old Million Dollar Bridge across the Fore River and streamed down Ocean Street in two lanes, traveling one way past his office, with parallel parking on either side.

“It was a speedway past here, you absolutely could not cross the street at certain times,” Drinan said on Monday.

But then, when the Casco Bay Bridge was completed in 1997, the Maine Department of Transportation worked with the city to reroute traffic in Knightville, converting all downtown streets to two-way traffic and building the Legion Square rotary as a funneling point. At that time, the parallel parking on Ocean Street was replaced with angled spots.

But then, following a $3.6 million sewer upgrade in the area in 2012, the city rebuilt Ocean Street to include wider sidewalks and amenities such as trees and new LED streetlights.

However, that meant a narrower roadway and the city’s engineering firm, Sebago Technics, recommended changing on street parking back to parallel spots. That actually resulted in more parking, but business owners complained because the spaces were spread out farther up the street.

As a compromise, the city agreed to retain angled spots, albeit angled in the other direction and painted both wider and longer, as well as at a steeper angle (45 degrees vs. 60) as per modern state and federal safety standards. That made the travel lane narrower still and so the city council voted on Sept. 10, 2012 to limit traffic on the single block between Legion Square and D Street to one lane, directed in a one-way pattern, away from the square. It wasn’t a perfect solution. But Drinan has often called in “the best imperfect solution” the city could come up with, under the circumstances.

In response, residents of the area complained, saying that would funnel traffic onto the side streets, which were not built to accommodate the increased volume. Things went back and forth until 2014 when then-Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings created an ad hoc advisory committee made of business owners and residents, designed to reach a compromise solution. Debate raged back and forth for more than 18 months until the Feb. 22 selectmen’s meeting.

At that workshop session, a majority of the council appeared ready to acquiesce to residents of the “letter streets” who have stumped repeatedly to restore two-way traffic on Ocean Street. That decision seemed fueled, at least in part, by Deake Street resident Natalie West.

An attorney known as a leading force in the recent battle to ban tar sands, West was asked by some of the Knightville residents to review city ordinances that pertained to parking.

What she found was an ordinance line dated to 1966 that states, “No vehicle shall stand or be parked diagonally upon any street within the city.”

“Staff ignored the city’s own ordinance and let the council enact an invalid parking scheme along Ocean [Street],” West wrote. “The city wasted thousands and thousands of dollars of taxpayer money by this sort of poor governance.”

City Manager Jim Gailey has acknowledged the city dropped the ball on that. The restriction was known – Gailey said Monday the angled parking first put in by MDOT designers never should have been allowed – and, in fact, Sebago Technics advised the city council of the restriction as far back as a September 2012 memo.

Gailey said Monday that city staff had drafted ordinance language that would have codified the change in the steepness of the angle and, by extension, allow angled parking in the first place. However, actually voting that in, he said, was put on hold when the city council decided the new one-way pattern would be given a one-year trial run. When the council reviewed the situation, it decided the new pattern was working, but staff forgot the change needed to be made official, Gailey said.

“As manager I’ve got to take responsibility for that,” he said.

However, while some city councilors gave themselves a demerit at the Feb. 22 meeting, saying the one-year review never happened, Gailey said it did indeed occur.

“We had a follow-up one-year meeting in July of 2013. About five people spoke and no issues were raised, hence nothing was changed,” Gailey said.

People did speak up, however, following creation of the downtown traffic committee. Originally formed in early 2014, the committee was initially a response to heavy snows, and concerns that cars parked along D Street ended up in the narrow travel lanes and blocked resident driveways.

Alan Cardinal, owner of Legion Square Market, notes that as a result of the early committee meetings, business owners agreed to have their employees park elsewhere, while he rerouted his delivery trucks off of D Street.

“We actually made some good progress at the beginning, but then the meetings got taken over by a group of people who didn’t care about progress,” Cardinal said. “They had a single issue. They only wanted one thing done, and that was the restoration of two-way traffic on Ocean Street,” Cardinal said.

Although Cardinal claims the committee was only ever meant to deal with winter parking issue, saying meetings were then “hijacked” by letter street residents, Gailey says the one-way controversy was a part of the discussion from the start. The very name of the group – the Knightville Parking and Traffi Circulation Committee – is a testament to that, he said.

Still, Cardinal says the council should not bend to the will of the downtown residents.

“It’s a small group of people who want this change,” he said. “That’s important to understand. It’s a small group, they’re just really vocal.”

To underscore that point, a petition signed by 15 downtown business owners was submitted to the council, asking that the new traffic pattern remain as is. Cardinal and Drinan also note that several downtown residents will join them at Monday’s council meeting to oppose restoration of two-way traffic and the elimination of the angled parking spaces.

“The new pattern is inconvenient for me, from where I am you have to go all the way around the block to get home,” said Linda Slater, a resident of the condominiums at 72 Ocean St.

“But I moved here knowing it was a mixed-use neighborhood.

That’s what I was looking for. I think you have to seek out some compromise to allow the businesses in the area to survive, and I think that’s what this was, a reasonable compromise.”

Slater and Cardinal both say Knightville is, in some ways, a victim of its own success. When the downtown renovation project was started, the condos at 72 Ocean St. were mostly vacant. Now,

Cardinal says, there are “at least 100 more people living down here.”

The goal at the next council meeting, Cardinal said, will be to convince the council to take no action, but to study the issue further. Options to resolve the congestion issues for concerned residents, but still retain the cluster of angled parking on the block of Ocean between D and E streets, might be to put in a “No

Right Turn” sign at D Street, or to extend the one-way flow all the way from Legion Square to Thomas Knight Park, at the end of

Ocean Street, Cardinal said.

“There has to be a solution that will retain the intent of the change, which was to maximize parking in the area where most of the business are concentrated. What we cannot do is make a knee-jerk reaction to a small group of people.

“The letter street people got their say at the last council meeting,” Cardinal said. “What we are hoping for is that the council will listen to the other side at the next meeting.”

If a decision is made to retain the angled parking, it will need to finally be adopted into the city’s code of ordinances, Gailey said.

Be there

The Knightville traffic debate comes to a head at the next meeting of the South Portland City Council, set for 7 p.m. on Monday, March 7, at city hall.

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