Organizers of Portland’s First Friday Art Walk will meet Monday with transportation officials and downtown merchants to discuss the closure of Congress Street on Dec. 6, when revelers had free rein over the downtown’s main street.
It was the first time that a section of Congress Street, which carries an average of more than 10,000 vehicles a day, was closed for the art walk, a 12-year-old event that organizers say draws nearly 3,000 people.
By most accounts, the street closure and the event went off without a hitch and organizers hope that city officials will be open to future closures.
“It went extraordinarily well,” said Mayor Michael Brennan, who attended the event. “I haven’t gotten one complaint.”
Congress Street was closed from Brown Street to Longfellow Square from 6 to 8 p.m. Parking was prohibited along the half-mile stretch from 4 to 8 p.m., and buses were rerouted.
Only three vehicles were towed, said Sheila Hill-Christian, the deputy city manager.
Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said there were “no problems, no issues (and) no concerns.”
High Street, a busy commuter route that intersects Congress Street in the middle of the art walk, remained open, presenting some challenges to police and volunteers, who struggled to keep pedestrian and vehicular traffic flowing, said Jennifer Hutchins, executive director of Creative Portland, which helps organize the event.
That caused some traffic delays, which were exacerbated by a gas leak on Cumberland Avenue, an alternative route for private and public transportation.
“It’s unclear if it was just Congress Street that was causing the backups,” Hutchins said.
Gregory Jordan, executive director of the Greater Portland Metro bus service, said the Congress Street closure wasn’t “too much of a problem” for bus drivers but service was disrupted by the gas main break on Cumberland Avenue.
“That did cause some congestion and we had to detour around the detour,” Jordan said.
Congress Street was designated a bus-priority corridor recently by the City Council. Jordan said Metro is still trying to determine whether the detours affected ridership.
Metro would like to continue working with the city and event organizers to find creative ways to allow more room for art walkers while limiting the effect on public transit, Jordan said. That effort could be formalized in a memorandum of understanding, outlining when and how road closures will be handled, he said.
That’s good news to organizers and businesses.
“Our constituents are saying they’d love to do it again,” Hutchins said.
Among them are not only artists, but also restaurants along the 600 block of Congress Street, which often struggle to draw foot traffic across High Street.
In addition to the street closure, art walkers were drawn across High Street by an outdoor performance by the fledgling Circus Conservatory of America, which is seeking to establish the nation’s first accredited circus school at Thompson’s Point.
Performers danced, juggled fire, rode unicycles and performed aerial acrobatics at Congress and Park streets.
Deb Glanville, who owns the Congress Bar & Grill, near the State Theatre, said she had her best night of business in 15 years. “It was standing room only. I wasn’t here, but I heard it was great, and everyone was in a really good mood,” she said.
The Congress Street’s closure debut follows a new policy enacted by the council that will close a portion of Baxter Boulevard to vehicles from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays starting in April. The closure will allow walkers, runners, bikers and skateboarders to use the street.
The idea of closing Exchange Street to vehicles and making it a pedestrian-only street has also been discussed, but Mayor Brennan said there have been no discussions about restarting that conversation.
“Closing a street permanently is another thing,” Brennan said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: