Few decisions that have gone to the Bangor City Council in recent years have generated as much attention as the one that’s on the agenda for next week: on Jan. 27, councilors will decide whether to keep the city’s public bus hub in Pickering Square.
In some ways, the question is a narrow one: should the city commit to constructing a small building on the Water Street side of the square to replace another bus terminal that closed last year as part of a renovation of the nearby parking garage?
But the resulting debate, which drew more than 100 people to a public hearing last week, has exposed a deeper rift about the future of Pickering Square, one of the few remaining corners of downtown Bangor that has been almost untouched by redevelopment in the past few decades.
While both sides agree that the square needs improvements, they fundamentally disagree over what role the bus terminal should play in its future.
Proponents of keeping a new-and-improved bus terminal in Pickering Square — including many bus riders and two firms that have done transit studies for the city — say it would better serve the population that relies on the system while also making the square a more inviting public space.
Opponents, including some property developers who have helped revitalize other areas of downtown, say that Pickering Square is too cramped to both hold a transportation hub and become a safe, attractive pedestrian plaza.
Underlying the discussions about the square are at least two other goals. The city is now trying to make other improvements to the Community Connector bus system that would increase its ridership, such as adding designated stops and adopting a mobile app to track buses, but some of those improvements could depend on the city having a fixed hub.
Also, some local leaders have spoken over the years about the need to cut down on fighting, drug use, intoxication and other nuisance behavior that’s sometimes reported in Pickering Square — but that advocates say does not generally come from the people who use the buses.
The vote next Monday night will not be the final decision about Pickering Square’s fate. If it passes, city staff would still have to submit detailed proposals for how the terminal and the surrounding area would look to the council and public for their consideration.
But the coming vote could settle the nearly decade-old question of whether the square remains the Community Connector’s hub. On a recent weekday morning, a number of riders who were waiting for buses said that the hub should stay in Pickering Square and that they do not think the space needs to serve any greater purpose than that.
“I want it here,” said Nancy Kearns, 69, who lives in the nearby Freese’s Assisted Living complex. Kearns, who uses a walker to get around, was waiting to get on the Stillwater Avenue route so she could eat lunch at Subway. She appreciates living near where all the buses converge, she said, and would not want to travel somewhere else just to transfer to a given route.
Edwin Nordfors, 40, said he lives near Pickering Square and uses the bus every day because he doesn’t have a car. While he understands the discomfort some people may feel walking through the square, he said that the convenience of its location should outweigh any other considerations.
“It would be a shame if it got pushed out,” he said.
Some riders, such as David Sesona, 57, of Orono also said they wish the city would hurry to install a heated shelter for people waiting outdoors for their buses.
“It can get really cold out here,” he said.
While proponents for moving the bus hub out of Pickering Square say that Bangor needs a strong public transit system, they have offered a few different reasons for their position. Three years ago, some owners of commercial properties in downtown Bangor supported a proposal to convert the square into a parking lot that would create 47 spots in addition to the few hundred spots that are already in the adjacent garage.
More recently, advocates for moving the bus terminal have argued that the city should do all it can to make Pickering Square into a preserved open space that can attract pedestrians and help boost downtown Bangor’s economic development. A bus terminal doesn’t compute with that vision, they have said, because of the noise, pollution and physical hazard that comes from large vehicles continually passing through the same space.
“I think the highest and best use of Pickering Square is to create a vibrant and outdoor civic space that can serve citizens of Bangor, from gatherings to films to concerts to children’s programming,” said Niles Parker, executive director of the Maine Discovery Museum, which has a back entrance onto Pickering Square. “Almost any city would give its left arm for a green pedestrian space in the heart of its downtown.”
The museum holds summer programs for children in the middle of the traffic island in Pickering Square, and it would do so more frequently if staff didn’t have to manage groups of children near buses or the cars that are trying to avoid them, according to Parker. He also said if the city ever wanted to use the new hub for other forms of transit such as railway, it would not have room to expand in Pickering Square.
On the other hand, say supporters of keeping the hub in Pickering Square, if the ultimate goal is a vibrant public square, the bus hub’s presence would help to create it.
Besides moving the bus hub along Water Street, the city’s preliminary proposal for redesigning the square would also open up an estimated 7,000 square feet of new, open space and create a natural buffer of landscaping between that space and the bus hub. The project is part of an ongoing initiative by the city to make the corridor between West Market Square and the Bangor waterfront more accessible to pedestrians.
Not only would those changes encourage more people to use public transit and frequent Pickering Square, but the addition of a new bus depot with an attendant would also help the city curb the nuisance behavior there, said Jack McKay, the director of Food AND Medicine, a local group pushing to keep the hub in the square.
Gibran Graham, a recent member of the City Council who owns the Briar Patch bookstore on Central Street, said the bus hub’s presence has never been a problem in the past when he has organized events in Pickering Square, including movie showings and children’s activities. He also questioned the argument that Bangor needs more “green space” in downtown when it already has a few parks scattered around the city.
“We’re not at a loss for green space in the city, and we’re not at a loss for green space downtown,” Graham said. “Regardless of how you remodel [Pickering Square], whether it’s one area of green space or more, just having green space is not going to bring people down there. It’s actually being down there and putting on events that’s going to do that.”