ROCKLAND, Maine ― City officials are considering a proposal that would keep both lanes of traffic open in downtown this summer, a reversal from last year, when the pandemic prompted the city to close down one lane of Main Street so businesses could sprawl outside.
Instead, the city will focus on providing extra outdoor space to restaurants that want it via parklets created out of parking spaces, which has been successfully utilized in other Maine cities like Portland and Bangor.
An ad hoc committee tasked with developing a downtown traffic plan for this summer presented the proposal to the Rockland City Council Wednesday night. The plan seeks to strike a balance between pedestrian safety along Main Street ― which doubles as U.S. Route 1 ― and giving restaurants access to outdoor space so patrons can be safely spaced during the second summer of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The city council is scheduled to vote on accepting the plan at its April 12 meeting. The summer traffic plan was put together over an eight-week period by a volunteer committee of 22 people, including city residents and downtown business owners.
“Public safety was the driver for this plan across all stakeholders,” Rockland Main Street Inc. Executive Director David Gogel said.
Last summer, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the city closed off one lane of Main Street ― which is a one-way two-lane street. Restaurants were able to set up tables on the closed side of the street. But the confusion surrounding the rollout and the resulting maze of Jersey barriers and neon traffic dividers drew criticism from many.
Under the current proposal, both lanes of Main Street will remain open to vehicle traffic. Restaurants that wish to have outdoor seating can request to set up tables in parking spaces in front of their businesses. These “parklets” will be separated from lanes of traffic by Jersey barriers or concrete planters, which the city will allow the businesses to paint and decorate.
The proposal also calls for “pocket parks” to be established on Winter Street and Oak Street, two one-way streets off of Main Street that were closed to traffic last summer. Seating will be set up in these roadways to allow the public to use the space during the day and restaurants can use the space during business hours.
Last summer, Oak Street was turned into a “color corridor” after a local muralist and volunteers extended an existing wall mural onto the road surface.
However, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art, which is located on Winter Street, is pushing back on having the road closed to traffic for a second summer. They say the street closure cut down on the ability of guests to easily access the museum last summer and are hopeful that an alternative can be worked out.
The street that the Farnsworth Art Museum is located on has not been closed off, CMCA Executive Director Tim Peterson said, so it’s unfair to have CMCA’s access limited.
“We’re really just looking for equal treatment,” Peterson said.
On Wednesday, councilors said either the ad hoc committee or city officials would meet with museum representatives to address their concerns and the plan could potentially be modified.
Other aspects of the proposal include “street art” elements that could potentially slow traffic, such as optical illusion crosswalks, according the City Councilor Louise MacLellan-Ruf. These crosswalks would be painted to look like they are elevated, which would cause drivers to naturally slow down as they approached them, she said.
Once the council accepts the plan, the city still needs to consult with the Maine Department of Transportation for final approval, since Route 1 is a state road. It’s not clear how soon the plan could go into place, however, many expressed a desire for it to be implemented by May, which is the start of the summer tourism season.