Pylons seal off Exchange Street at the Fore Street intersection in Portland on June 1, 2020. (Portland Phoenix/Jim Neuger)
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Three years after the pandemic prompted the city to close down a popular Old Port street to vehicle traffic, a local organization is working to make it a little more common.

Portland Downtown, a nonprofit organization that supports downtown business development, brought forward a plan to the city’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee to close down Exchange Street from Middle to Fore streets on Sundays only, beginning June 16 and running through Sept. 23.

The proposal was supported by the two members of the committee present for the May 24 meeting, Chair Andrew Zarro and Councilor Roberto Rodriguez. It will now go to the City Council for deliberation on June 5.

Portland Downtown had originally eyed a longer street closure period, beginning Friday evening and concluding Sunday evening. However, Executive Director Cary Tyson wanted to go slow and demonstrate a “proof of concept” with just Sundays. 

The city does not collect parking meter fees on Sundays, so there will be no lost revenue. There are roughly 30 parking spaces on that portion of Exchange Street, Tyson said.

“I’m sure there will be things we haven’t thought about that will come up,” Tyson said. “Our approach is that we learn from it and deal with it. We don’t take the approach that this is the only way.”

Portland Downtown has already purchased new roadblocks to put at either end of Exchange Street, which will look different from the concrete barriers Portlanders saw during the early days of the pandemic when streets were closed to facilitate outdoor dining. These new barriers will have LED lights and adjustable benches for pedestrians to sit at. They are 75 pounds each, but can be filled with water up to 1,000 pounds.

If approved by the Council, the street would close around 10 a.m. on Sundays, allowing for emergency deliveries a business might need. Exchange Street would remain closed to vehicle traffic until 8 or 9 p.m.

“We are advocates of walking and placemaking,” Tyson said. “We think this is a really good opportunity to try it out. We’ve seen it across the country be successful. We think lower Exchange is a good way to put our foot in the water.”

Zarro, who chairs the committee, supported the idea, adding that it was a “slightly different” iteration of when the city shut down Exchange Street to cars in 2020. 

“We had talked about this in previous years… we had wanted lower Exchange to be like Church Street in Burlington, always closed to cars,” he said. “This is finding a balance.”

While closing lower Exchange Street on Sundays is a pilot program, proponents hope it could lead to longer closures in the future, and even additional areas like Free Street getting the same treatment.

“This feels like one of those win-win scenarios where we get to try something that could be really great for the community and have no negative impact for the businesses,” Zarro said. “We don’t want to build a city for cars.”


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