PORTLAND, Maine — Let the follies begin.
A 100-foot-long block of Federal Street between Market and Exchange streets will be closed to vehicle traffic from July 3 to Oct. 12 after City Councilors on Monday approved a permit for the so-called Federal Street Folly outside the new Press Hotel.
The approval came a week after councilors postponed a vote because of concerns from some Old Port business owners, but the concept of creating a space for gatherings and cultural events was supported.
“This is as well-chosen a street segment as we could pick,” Councilor Kevin Donoghue said, noting he has also been a critic of prior closings of Congress Street that have affected bus service and commuter traffic.
The “pop-up park” plan proposed by Press Hotel developer Jim Brady and General Manager Sean Holland includes barricades across Federal Street; installation of carpeting, benches and other seating, and possible “canopy lighting.”
“We are envisioning probably eight to 10 events a month,” Holland said.
Brady said it is an ideal site for people to gather for meals, shows and other presentations throughout the summer and early fall.
“The whole goal is a more pedestrian-friendly area on upper Exchange Street,” he said May 1.
The hotel will pay for the street alterations, reimburse the city $600 for parking meter revenue lost at one of three parking spaces, and carry liability insurance for events.
The proposal had support from Portland Trails Executive Director Kara Wooldrik, Maine College of Art President Dr. Donald L.Tuski, and Executive Director Steve Hewins of Portland’s Downtown District.
Kate Simmons, who works and lives in the Old Port, also gave the park her support.
“This is a fantastic investment in our creative economy,” she said.
Several Exchange Street business owners were less enthusiastic.
“I think having people brought up to the top of Exchange is a good plan, I think cutting off a street is a bad plan,” Trudy Poulin, manager of Optical Expressions at 87 Exchange St., said May 1.
Stephany Guyot and her mother, Jill Guyot, of Swiss Time at 86 Exchange, agreed with Poulin that the short block on Federal is needed for customers getting around the Old Port, especially after the Press Hotel opens.
While no official traffic study has been done, a May 1 memo from Public Services Director Michael Bobinsky discounted any possible traffic problems, based on an assessment from city traffic engineer Jeremiah Bartlett.
“The local streets in the Old Port area all operate well under capacity,” Bobinsky said. “Traffic diverted by this proposed closure can be easily accommodated by other streets.”
The plan was recommended by the City Council Transportation, Sustainability and Energy Committee at its March 18 meeting, but the committee chairman, Councilor David Marshall, said April 27 he had counted on hotel management to reach out to other businesses.
Between the council’s initial postponement and Monday’s vote, city staff were instructed to meet again with people who could be affected by closing the street.
A presentation was made April 30 at the hotel, which is scheduled to open in about two weeks. Poulin and Stephany Guyot said the meeting made them feel as though the street closure was inevitable, and said it typified the lack of notification that has been part of the process.
Brady disagreed, saying Bobinsky and other staff presented a plan that has been discussed since February, including at meetings with the PDD.
Valerie Guillet, the director and French instructor at the Language Exchange, 80 Exchange St., said in an April 1 email she also opposes the plan.
“Does anyone truly realize the impact that this lack of traffic flow and diminished access to parking will have?” she asked, adding people in her classes rely on street parking.
Brady said he was inspired by visiting the McCord Museum Urban Forest in Montreal, where a one-block section of Victoria Street outside the museum is closed off in spring and summer.
“Montreal has a great underground and train system to ensure that even out-of-towners do not need to use their cars to enjoy the downtown area,” Guillet countered.
Councilors urged city staff to closely evaluate the effects of closing the street, but agreed the concept is worth a try.
“We can undo this pretty darn quick,” Councilor Ed Suslovic said.