Exchange Street between Middle and Fore streets is among the Portland streets that will be closed to vehicles starting June 1 under a temporary city program allowing restaurants and shops to expand their outdoor dining and sales activities. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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In a move that received strong support from business owners, Portland’s City Council voted Monday to close several downtown streets for five months to help restaurants and businesses meet social distancing guidelines. 

The unanimous vote will close Dana Street, Exchange Street between Federal and Fore streets, Milk Street from Exchange to Market and Silver to Pearl streets, and Wharf Street. The 24/7 closures from June 1-Nov. 1 will allow restaurants and stores to offer expanded outdoor services, and were recommended by the Economic Development Committee on May 14.

Prior to the council vote, City Manager Jon Jennings said the city had a responsibility to assist the reopening of businesses that have been either partially or entirely closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

R.C. Ehman hands a bottle of pinot noir to a customer at the curbside takeout window of the Petite Jacqueline bistro at the corner of Market and Milk streets in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

“I thought it was appropriate to explore all measures in which we could be a partner in helping our restaurants, our retail businesses, and any business that wants to partner in using the assets like streets, sidewalks and parking spaces,” Jennings said.

Portland has been following state guidance on stay-at-home orders and when it comes to reopening the economy. Gov. Janet Mills allowed rural parts of the state to begin safely reopening earlier this month, in counties where community transmission wasn’t detected.

Mills previously offered a four-phase plan to reopen the economy, and June 1 is the start of the second phase. In that phase, gatherings of 50 people would be allowed, and restaurants, hotels and lodging groups, some camps, gyms, and other kinds of recreation could begin reopening.

Mills’ plan has received some pushback. Last week, owners of two campgrounds and two restaurants filed a federal lawsuit challenging the governor’s authority. They assert Mills’ order of a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming into Maine from another state is unconstitutional.

Fees to be waived, delayed

Under Portland’s temporary program, fees required of businesses already holding permits to operate outdoors will be waived and fees associated with parklet applications will be significantly reduced. Renewals and new outdoor dining permit fees, as well as fees for sidewalk sale permits, will remain the same but will not be due until 60 days after a permit has been issued. The permitting process has also been simplified, the city said, to allow businesses to take advantage of the policy changes as quickly as possible.

Jennings admitted the city will face a loss of revenue from closing these streets: an estimated $40,000 in parking fees. And while he said the city is in “a fairly dire set of circumstances as it relates to revenue projections,” he said it is important to be able to provide assistance to restaurants and businesses that are already struggling.

He said the streets chosen to be temporarily closed to vehicles were strategically selected. The proposal originally called for six streets to be included, but the Economic Development Committee whittled that down to four. Jennings said the four streets were chosen with public safety in mind.

“I think a lot of people don’t realize the city doesn’t control all of our streets,” he said.

Some streets are controlled by the state, Jennings said, while others are controlled by the federal government. He noted that Fore Street, with its many shops and restaurants, would seem a natural for closing, but it is controlled by the state.

“We don’t have carte blanche to close all city streets,” he said.

Jennings said the city knows people will be inconvenienced by the closings, but the city has tried to mitigate those inconveniences wherever possible.

For example, he said Middle Street between Franklin and India Street was initially considered since there are several restaurants in that block. However, he said it became clear this would be problematic because there is a bank with drive-through service on the street. He said the city backtracked, and will leave Middle Street open, although it will try to allow restaurants there to offer more outdoor dining options in parking spaces, also known as “parklets.”

“This will be an ever-evolving set of circumstances,” Jennings said. “We are here to work with the community.”

‘Great if it happens’

Peter Bissell, of Bissell Brothers Brewing at Thompson’s Point and Highroller Lobster Co. on Exchange Street, said the plan sounds “great if it happens,” although he cautioned that anything having to do with restaurants during the COVID-19 crisis requires a “believe-it-when-I-see-it” attitude.

Peter Bissell, Baxter Key and Andy Gerry, co-owners of Highroller Lobster Co., in front of the restaurant on Exchange Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

He said every great city has a few streets like this, and he said there has been industry talk about whether Exchange Street should be pedestrian-only year-round.

“If we are able to do it, great,” Bissell said. “But I’m not watching with bated breath.”

He said he expects a summer business bump of some sort regardless of the city’s plan, since the state is allowing hotels to begin a staged reopening. He declined to say if that is the right or wrong call, but said it clearly signifies that Maine is inviting out-of-state visitors.

“We’ll gladly take that business,” Bissell said. “We already have an outdoor dining license and a patio.”

Bissell said he could see how the street closings may cause inconveniences for residents, but said many residents may find they like the change.

“I’m sure there will be pushback from businesses not included,” he added. “We’re flying by the seat of our pants every day. I’m not much for shaking my fists. I’m very open to it, I think it’s a great idea.”

Nancy Pugh of Duckfat and Karl Deuben of the East Ender, both on Middle Street, expressed support for the plan at Monday’s meeting.

“I think it’s great the city has started to get creative as far as utilizing outdoor space,” Deuben said, adding having pedestrian-only streets are something the city should encourage. He said there is concern over the cost of permits for the parklets, but he also said allowing restaurants to serve customers outdoors is now a vital tool.

Pugh said allowing restaurants to expand outside opens Portland up, which in turn can only make it more successful.

“I think the idea is really great, I love the idea that Portland is thinking outside the box,” she said.

Mary Allice Scott, executive director of Portland Buy Local, also agreed that closing streets is a good idea.

“It’s great to see the city be proactive and find creative ways to support the business community,” she said.

Scott said it is important to view this as a first step, to see what works and what doesn’t. But she said this will be a good chance for the business community to work with the city.

“I hope the city will take this as a first step and maybe do something similar in other neighborhoods,” she said.

While there is some concern about logistics, Scott said that by and large business owners have seemed supportive in her conversations with them.

Saben Anderson brings coffee to the curbside pickup window of Higher Grounds Maine on Wharf Street in Portland. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)

She said this is a good opportunity for the city to see if a pedestrian-only street is a workable full-time idea. She said having a pedestrian-only street, like Church Street in Burlington, Vermont, brings a “feeling of vibrancy” to a downtown area.

She said she also hopes the city will take a look at doing this in other neighborhoods, like Woodfords Corner.

“Having more walkability is better for small, local shops,” Scott said.

She said Portland Buy Local has partnered with other organizations, such as Portland Trails and the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, to start a campaign to show support for pedestrian-only streets. Scott said the campaign received more than 500 signatures from supportive businesses and residents.

“I think a lot of folks are really excited,” Scott said.

But the excitement isn’t universal.

Reservations on Exchange, in Woodfords

Ellen Kanner, owner of Dobra Tea on Exchange St., wrote to the city saying a full closure of Exchange Street may not be a good thing for an entire day. Instead, she said closing the streets in the afternoon into the evening could work, or just Friday-Sunday.

“I’m trying to come up with an option that makes both restaurants and retailers happy, as I’ve heard from a couple of retail shops that full-day closure doesn’t work for them,” Kanner said.

Jill, Stephany, and Kristopher Guyot, owners of Swiss Time on Exchange Street, also expressed written concerns to the city. They said it’s unreasonable to expect them to watch merchandise on the street instead of in the store, and it “seems to be setting up retailers for the potential disaster of theft.”

The family members also said their business is already struggling “and at the brink of permanent closure” due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and urged the city to rethink its proposal.

Friends of Woodfords Corner, a neighborhood association, sent a letter to Mayor Kate Snyder, Jennings, and city councilors supporting the initiative. However, the group said it doesn’t think the proposal does enough for businesses and communities outside of the Old Port.

It asked the city to ease permitting fees for those businesses, too.

The group’s letter to city officials said the guidelines have a “narrow geographic scope, and do not take into account the economic and outdoor infrastructure challenges that Portland businesses face outside” the downtown and Old Port. It suggests street closures will drive foot traffic to retailers in those areas, but will create a greater struggle for businesses off the peninsula.

“In Woodfords Corner, like in many smaller village hubs in the city, there is no safe and affordable way for business owners to take advantage of outdoor dining or retail sidewalk space and abide by the distancing requirements issued by Gov. Mills,” the letter said.

Steve Hewins, president and CEO of Hospitality Maine, said this is a good move for restaurants in Portland.

“I know that emerging data indicates eating outside can be safer and that a number of people may be more inclined to dine outside than in, at this stage,” Hewins said. “I know that many other cities and towns in Maine are considering this.”

During Monday’s meeting, Councilor Justin Costa said this is an important measure, since it gives city staff flexibility going forward with similar proposals.

“This is an experiment, it’s one we hope will be successful,” Costa said. “It’s one we hope gives the option for these businesses to operate as safely as they can.”

Costa recognized there may be unintended consequences, and “in all likelihood, this won’t be a benefit to every single business.” 

But he said these are “dire times for some of our businesses, and we have an opportunity to provide a little more flexibility.”