Portland’s historic Woodfords Corner may be poised for a renaissance.

Long-planned improvements, including a new public plaza in front of the landmark Odd Fellows Hall and dedicated bike lanes on Forest Avenue, are scheduled to move forward next spring. Private development plans have been approved to create 25 units of market-rate housing in a former church. And a new upscale restaurant recently opened there, adding to eating options that already include a bakery, Cajun kitchen and several international markets.

Meanwhile, residents from several neighborhoods are organizing a new group, called the Friends of Woodford’s Corner, to help guide the growth of Portland’s off-peninsula village.

“Right now, it’s the cracks in between the neighborhoods,” said Teresa Valliere, a lead organizer of the friends group who would like to see more places to socialize in the area. “There’s got to be a way to make this into a nice little village. We don’t always have to go to the peninsula to have fun. I want to do it here.”

City planners are hoping that a $2.6 million face-lift to the loud and chaotic intersection will lay the groundwork for a bigger economic and community resurgence of the area, which lies about a mile west of the city’s busy downtown.

However, some people are concerned that plans to eliminate on-street parking between Woodford Street and Ocean Avenue would hurt a handful of established businesses.

“It hurts our business if we don’t have parking,” said John Merrill, co-owner of Merrill’s Seafood, which has been there for roughly 60 years. He said many of the family-owned store’s customers are elderly and cannot walk long distances.

“You have to make it as easy as possible for the customer,” Merrill said.

A photograph of Portland’s Woodfords Corner from May 12, 1947. Forest Avenue is the main street in the foreground, with Deering Avenue on the right. Courtesy of Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives.

A photograph of Portland’s Woodfords Corner from May 12, 1947. Forest Avenue is the main street in the foreground, with Deering Avenue on the right. Courtesy of Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives.

On March 21, the City Council is scheduled to vote on approving funding to redesign Woodfords Corner. The project includes widening Forest Avenue north of Ocean Avenue to include two lanes of traffic in both directions. It also includes changes intended to benefit bicyclists and pedestrians, including by adding several so-called bump-outs that will narrow intersections to make it safer for pedestrians to cross the road. The plaza planned in front of the Odd Fellows Hall would eliminate a right-turn-only lane onto Woodford Street for northbound traffic on Forest Avenue.

The project, originally scheduled for last year’s construction season, has been delayed because of the need for costly upgrades to the railroad crossing on Forest Avenue just north of Woodfords Corner. The larger project can move forward now that the city and the state have come up with a combination of public funding to pay for $500,000 in crossing upgrades needed to preserve the so-called “quiet zone” so trains will not have to blow their horns.

City Engineering Manager Kathi Earley said the two-party agreement with the state calls for the city to pay $640,000, or about 25 percent, of the intersection project costs, with the remainder financed with state and federal funds. If approved by the council, construction would begin in April 2017 and last through the entire construction season, she said.

VORTEX OF FOUR NEIGHBORHOODS

Besides traffic congestion, Woodfords Corner is best known for Odd Fellows Hall. Its roughly 80-foot-tall clock tower presides over a five-way intersection that on average sees more than 10,000 vehicles a day.

The four-story brick building dates back to 1897, when Deering was its own town and had its municipal offices located there, according to a study commissioned by Greater Portland Landmarks. Two years later, Deering was annexed by Portland.

Across Forest Avenue is the Chipman Block, which was built in a similar style but on a far less grandiose scale. In the early 1890s it was home to an apothecary, but now it features two restaurants – Bayou Kitchen and Abilene Restaurant and Bar – as well as a screen printer on the first floor and apartments on the second and third floors.

A freight train passes through Woodfords Corner in Portland. Federal money will help rehabilitate 380 miles of track throughout Maine and remove longstanding bottlenecks.

A freight train passes through Woodfords Corner in Portland. Federal money will help rehabilitate 380 miles of track throughout Maine and remove longstanding bottlenecks. Press Herald File Photo/John Patriquin

Across Deering Avenue is the former Engine Co. No. 8 fire house, which was in service from 1907 to 1967 but is now home to Big Sky Bakery. Next door to that is the national headquarters for Artist & Craftsmen Supply, an employee-owned company established in 1985 that has a bright and funky storefront.

In 1846, a passenger depot for the railroad was established at Woodfords Corner. Although automobiles made passenger trains nearly obsolete, at least in the U.S., rail service has seen a bit of a resurgence in recent years and the Amtrak Downeaster now carries passengers through Woodfords Corner on its way to Brunswick and back.

The additional train service, coupled with freight operations, however, has increased traffic congestion in the area and presented a challenge to both drivers and pedestrians. In 2014, portions of Forest Avenue saw, on average, between 10,000 and 24,000 vehicle trips a day, according to traffic counts from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Today, the combination of businesses – restaurants, antiques, barbershop, international markets, seafood store, theater company and a roller derby store – give the area an eclectic feel.

Although technically located in the Back Cove neighborhood, Woodfords Corner is essentially the vortex of four neighborhoods, including Oakdale, Deering Center and Rosemont. Those neighborhoods have some of the city’s highest-earning residents, but many are hesitant to walk from one neighborhood to another if it involves crossing four lanes of traffic on Forest Avenue.

“When people come across the road, they tell us about it,” said Travis Colgan, a 29-year-old co-owner of Abilene Restaurant and Bar, which is located on the Deering neighborhood side of Forest Avenue.

NEIGHBORS UNITE, PITCH IN

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Nancy Woodward was cautiously navigating the traffic as it whirled and roared in a cacophony around her. The 66-year-old does not own a car and walks everywhere she needs to go.

“It’s a challenge,” Woodward said of trying to navigate the intersection. “You try to cross one lane and you have to be careful of cars coming in the other lanes.”

Teresa Valliere stands in the Woodfords Corner area on Wednesday. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

Teresa Valliere stands in the Woodfords Corner area on Wednesday. Whitney Hayward/Staff Photographer

When asked to describe Woodfords Corner, the first words out of Polly Smith’s mouth were “loud, very loud.” The owner of Turn Two skate shop, which has catered to roller derby enthusiasts for the past four years, said she has a front-row seat to road rage incidents and near-accidents that occur daily.

On nice days such as Wednesday, when Portland had a record-high temperature, Smith said she can’t open the door because of the noise of revving engines and the dust kicked up by passing cars.

“It’s pretty seedy,” the 41-year-old Smith said. “It’s a very bizarre area. It looks like it’s up-and-coming, but it seems to be struggling. There are pieces of it coming together, but it’s still loud and dirty.”

While the problems are easily apparent, a fledgling friends group can’t help but see the area’s potential.

Neighborhood residents began to organize two years ago to respond to a problem house with a delinquent landlord. Teresa Valliere said she was surprised when she held a neighborhood potluck and about 35 people came. The 55-year-old psychotherapist quickly discovered a lot of energy and interest in improving the neighborhood, which culminated in a neighborhood cleanup day. An army of volunteers picked up rubbish along five blocks, including old mattresses on the rail line.

“I was overwhelmed” by the enthusiasm of the community, Valliere said.

Eric Larsson, 52, helped create a Facebook page for the group, called “Friends of Woodford’s Corner,” and its following quickly grew to about 250 people. The friends group has been engaging the city in its planning efforts for the corner and intends to hold a community meeting to show residents the final plan.

Larsson, an avid biker, said he thinks the city’s plan to improve the intersection will only marginally improve traffic flow for vehicles, but he is excited about other components, such as building a public plaza and adding street furniture, trees and bike lanes.

“The potential for place-making and for economic development are a huge opportunity,” Larsson said. “It’s not a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.”

Portland Planning and Urban Development Director Jeff Levine said he has seen firsthand how investments in public infrastructure – such as building plazas, adding street furniture and creating bike lanes – can lead to economic development. He pointed to Magoun Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, which received a $3 million face-lift in 2011 that spurred economic development, as well as Longfellow Square in Portland.

“I could see Woodfords Corner as feeling more like Longfellow Square in 10 or 20 years,” Levine said, referring to the busy intersection of Congress Street and State Street. “I think it’s already happening to some extent. You already have some great local business, but you don’t have the sense of knitting them all together.”

Levine also believes that residential development will soon follow, since Woodfords Corner is located on a public bus line and is actually closer to City Hall than some portions of the West End, one of the city’s most desirable rental neighborhoods. A 25-unit market-rate residential development in a former Pleasant Avenue church could be a “pioneer,” he said.

“There’s definitely going to be a market for people who want to live on a transit corridor like Forest Avenue,” Levine said. “I don’t think the market is quite there, but it is getting there.”