2016-03-11 / Front Page

Two ways to look at it

SoPo traffic debate comes to full stop
By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer


The block of Ocean Street, from Legion Square to D Street, which has been hotly debated by area residents and business owners for four years, will return to two-way traffic, with the angled parking converted to parallel spaces, following a 7-0 vote of the city council Monday, March 7. (Duke Harrington photo) The block of Ocean Street, from Legion Square to D Street, which has been hotly debated by area residents and business owners for four years, will return to two-way traffic, with the angled parking converted to parallel spaces, following a 7-0 vote of the city council Monday, March 7. (Duke Harrington photo) SOUTH PORTLAND — The long-running question of how traffic should flow in South Portland’s historic Knightville district came to a full stop Monday night, with a 4-2 vote of the city council that will remove the one-way sign from the block of Ocean Street between Legion Square and D Street.

The ruling came after more than two hours of sometimes heated debate during a marathon council meeting that lasted nearly five hours. As the midnight hour neared, the council agreed to convert 15 angled spaces on the side of the street facing Legion Square Market to nine parallel spots. That will leave enough space for duel travel lanes, restoring two-way flow after more than three years.


Michael Drinan stands in the window of his office at Drinan Properties, overlooking Ocean Street, where the angled parking spaces will be converted to parallel spaces following a March 7 city council vote. Drinan has been a vocal supporter of leaving the pattern as is, predicting downtown businesses will suffer with the change, which will cost the block between Legion Square and D Street six parking spots. (Duke Harrington photo) Michael Drinan stands in the window of his office at Drinan Properties, overlooking Ocean Street, where the angled parking spaces will be converted to parallel spaces following a March 7 city council vote. Drinan has been a vocal supporter of leaving the pattern as is, predicting downtown businesses will suffer with the change, which will cost the block between Legion Square and D Street six parking spots. (Duke Harrington photo) City Manager Jim Gailey said the changeover will likely take place sometime in May.

Business owners in the area, who say the cluster of angled spots is vital to their successful operation, fear the long-term impact of the parking loss.

“One way is the right way. Let’s keep it that way, please,” said Jeannie Dunnigan, owner with her husband Bill of CIA cafĂ©, located at the corner of Ocean and D streets.

Dunnigan said a traffic study commissioned by the city failed to turn up evidence of adverse effects to the area from a 2012 compromise that retained angled parking spots following reconstruction of the street after a $3.6 million sewer system upgrade. At the time, the city’s engineering firm, Sebago Technics, recommended converting on-street parking to parallel spots, which resulted in more parking on Ocean Street, but business owners complained because the spaces were spread out, farther up the street.

The council agreed to retain the angled spots in front of Legion Square Market, but because modern safety standards made what was striped back in both longer and wider, room remained for only a single lane of traffic, resulting in a one-way configuration.

Some residents said this funneled traffic onto side streets, creating a safety hazard. However, a separate speed study conducted by the police department found most vehicles actually made the cut though at less than the posted limit. Meanwhile, a one-year check-in following the change turned up few complaints, and the new pattern remained.

That was until an ad hoc committee created in 2014 to address downtown parking issues turned its attention to the one-way block. Although Gailey said the committee charge was always intended to get to the simmering resentment among some residents resulting from the change, most business owners who joined the group say it was initially only a response to heavy snows that season, 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 said 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. Once that was resolved, the agenda shifted, he said.

“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.”

“I think the councilors should put their feet in my skates for a day and see what I see,” said Dunnigan, who is famous for serving her customers while wearing roller skates. “Small business brings life to Knightville, and it does not make sense that the council would take parking away while business is booming and Knightville is becoming one of the most desired neighborhoods in the state of Maine.

“As a business owner and a resident, this change concerns me greatly, as this will result in the loss of five much needed parking spaces and destroy the vibrancy of this quaint village.”

But for some residents, vibrancy means something different.

“The only thing I wanted by re-opening the two-way option on Ocean Street was for the traffic on the letter streets to decrease,” said Donna Snow, a 19-year resident of E Street. “I don’t want any business to fail. I don’t want to hurt anyone. But this re-opening issue has turned ugly in ways that I couldn’t imagine and I am heartbroken that this neighborhood is now split down the middle just because some of the residents want our streets to feel like a neighborhood again and not a highway.”

The majority of the council agreed the time had come to do an about-face on its previous one-way decision.

“This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction. We’ve been there. We’ve hashed it out,” said Councilor Patti Smith.

However, just as important as the complaints of some downtown residents in prompting the council’s change of mind was the recent discovery by attorney Natalie West of a line in city ordinances dating to 1966. It states, “No vehicle shall stand or be parked diagonally upon any street within the city.”

Gailey has taken responsibility for that oversight. The angled parking that existed on Ocean Street from the opening of the Casco Bay Bridge in 1997 never should have been allowed, he has said. When the street was rebuilt in 2012, city staff was advised of the ordinance line by its engineering firm, Sebago Technics, and drafted an update to allow for angled spots. But that amendment was put on hold until the one-year check-in, and then forgotten about, Gailey said.

Mayor Tom Blake and Councilor Linda Cohen opposed Monday’s motion to convert the angled spots to a parallel configuration, with Blake calling the entire debate a “no-win situation.”

“We’ll be back here as Knightville grows,” Blake said, predicting continued unrest over the issue.

On Tuesday, Michael Drinan, whose property management office overlooks the block at the center of both the downtown district, and the traffic debate, said he, too, fears the last word has yet to be said.

“Look, they’ve made a decision,” he said. “I understand the desire to return to two-way (traffic). I’ve never not understood that. But I just maintain that what we have here is clearly working. It’s not perfect, but I think the increase in business activity here shows it is working. The problem is that emotions overwhelm the data that shows it’s working, because there are few people who really don’t like it — they feel it’s inconvenient, that it serves only a few businesses, and that some people are being afforded special treatment because of it.

“But I would maintain that it serves the entire neighborhood. Because CIA and others are here and doing well, the neighborhood is doing well,” Drinan said. “I think the council was a little bit cavalier about the future success or failure of businesses down here. Checking in once again a year after the change, for some businesses, frankly, that year may be too late.”

Meanwhile, although the council chose not to amend its parking ordinances to match what was happening on the ground, it may have to address the 1966 ban on angled parking in the near future.

In late 2014, the council agreed to create 32 parking spaces on Waterman Drive, between C and E streets. Those spots are perpendicular to the street, landing them in a gray area between the ordinance ban on angled spots and its call for parallel spaces only along city streets.

Asked Tuesday if those spots needed to be addressed, or if, because of the width of Waterman Drive, they are not considered to be on-street parking, Gailey said in an email that the spots are on his radar.

“We are exploring the parking on Waterman,” he wrote. “Good catch.”

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