The city will begin the first phase of a Pickering Square makeover this spring that’s designed to make it more attractive and safer for pedestrians.
The first phase of the project, slated to finish in the fall, includes adding new tables, chairs, high-canopy trees, grass and benches to the triangular portion of land next to Pickering, between the base of the Kenduskeag Stream pedestrian bridge and Merchants Plaza.
“I think we can all agree that improvements need to be made,” City Council Chairman Ben Sprague said.
Also this spring, the entrance of the adjacent parking garage will be moved to the opposite end of the building, at the corner of Broad and Water streets, rerouting garage traffic away from pedestrians and buses.
The city council has set aside just over $1.1 million in recent years to pay for an overhaul of Pickering Square and the surrounding area. Plans to make it a more attractive, people-friendly area resurfaced again last summer, after the fountain was torn down by the city, following complaints of people throwing trash into and bathing in it.
“Pickering Square is not a nice public space,” City Manager Cathy Conlow said.
In late 2016, city officials considered a few redesign options, including what proved to be an unpopular idea of using the space for more parking and relocating the transportation hub.
In the past, when officials have floated the idea of reassessing the hub’s location, council and public response has been mixed. But the newest set of preliminary proposals, which did not yet include moving the hub, seemed to gain traction among councilors at a workshop in late February.
The pocket park on the other side of Merchants Plaza, behind Nocturnem Draft Haus and Gerald Winters & Son bookstore, could also be revamped as early as the fall, but the center, circular portion of Pickering wouldn’t be reconstructed likely until 2020, Conlow said.
A routing study will also be completed this year to help officials determine whether Pickering should continue accommodating the city’s biggest transportation hub, or whether it makes sense to have an auxiliary hub somewhere else in the city. This is the only aspect of the Pickering remodel that requires the city to seek public input, Conlow said.
“We need to figure out what is going to make a better user experience for transit users,” Emery added. “We can’t assume that what we have now is the best option.”
Officials also want to replace the walking bridge that extends over the Kenduskeag Stream in 2019. Approximately $150,000 was approved in this year’s fiscal budget to draft a new bridge design, Conlow said, which will happen this summer.
In the meantime, before construction begins, council approval will be needed to approve the design of the triangle and pocket park, along with the engineering firm the city will work with on the project, she said.
The challenge all along has been figuring out how to redesign the downtown space in a way that will make it more usable for everyone, Emery said.
“We have got to figure out a better way to create public spaces in and around Pickering Square that are inviting positive activity, that are inviting use,” she said.
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