Franklin Street is a four-lane divided street that runs across the city from Interstate 295 to Portland Harbor. It serves as a major traffic arterial in and out of the city. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

A Portland City Council subcommittee backed away from renaming a major city thoroughfare after the late Martin Luther King Jr., choosing instead to recommend that a task force be formed to investigate finding another way to recognize the legacy of one of the nation’s greatest civil rights leaders.

The council’s Sustainability and Transportation Committee held a public hearing Tuesday evening on the proposal to change the name of Franklin Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but it quickly became clear that most members of the public in attendance were opposed because of the dislocation of neighborhood residents that was caused by the creation of the Franklin Street Arterial a half-century ago. About 25 residents attended the hearing at City Hall and only one person who spoke supported the name change.

The three councilors on the committee – Spencer Thibodeau, Jill Duson and Belinda Ray – voted unanimously to recommend that the full council create a task forced charged with finding an alternative way to honor King. Duson had first proposed that the gateway to Portland be renamed after the civil rights icon.

Franklin Street, which has four lanes, connects Interstate 295 traffic with downtown Portland and the city’s waterfront. An estimated 28,000 vehicles use the street each day. There are no public memorials to King in Portland.

I thought this was a great idea,” Duson said after the hearing. “I am frankly surprised that no one likes the idea. But I hear you. This isn’t something that I want to ram down anyone’s throat.”

Duson told the audience that she was a child of the civil rights movement and that Maine’s largest and most diverse city should find a way to honor King’s accomplishments. But she admitted that renaming Franklin Street might not be the best option.

A largely forgotten and controversial piece of Portland’s history came to light during the hearing, one that seemed to influence the opinions of the committee members.

Several people, including a former resident of the Bayside neighborhood that was demolished in the late 1960s, said it would be inappropriate to rename the street after the slain civil rights activist because so many families were dislocated by the project.

Franklin Street was reconstructed in the late 1960s as a divided arterial roadway to allow vehicles greater access to Commercial Street and downtown Portland.

Art Piteau said he was born and raised at 153 Franklin St. He was 12 years old in 1967 when the city took his parents’ home by eminent domain and forced his and other families to find another place to live. After the hearing, Piteau said the city “stole” people’s homes and those who are still alive resent what happened.

“The effect on the people who lived there at the time … was very negative. The city rushed the project through in the name of progress,” Piteau told the committee members.

Piteau said he supports recognition for deserving individuals such as King, but he added he didn’t believe that King would want his name attached to a street with such a controversial past.

“To remove the last vestige of this neighborhood and what it used to be would be the final slap in the face for those of us who lived through it,” Piteau said.

“I think renaming the street is actually a good idea,” said Thibodeau, the committee’s chairman. “But I am also mindful of the heartbreak that took place.”

Thibodeau said the city should try to find a way to remember the neighborhood that was split in half by the Franklin Street Arterial project.

Mary Ricci said she lived 76 years on Hampshire Street in the city’s East End. She still remembers the hardship that the project caused.

“I hope the street remains as it is in memory of those residents who were displaced when the city created Franklin Street,” Ricci said.

“It was so traumatic for those people and families who lost their homes,” added Carol Ann Noonan, who grew up with Ricci.

“To me, Franklin Street is the heart of the city of Portland. It has always been there. The city has already taken a lot from us, so I am begging you don’t take this away from us,” said Maryjane Gardner, who grew up on Munjoy Hill.

Others who spoke at the hearing suggested that Franklin Street be renamed after the country’s first black president, Barack Obama, or after Gerald Talbot, a former black state legislator from Portland, for their accomplishments.

Mark Reilly offered another suggestion. He said Congress Street should be renamed after King.

“Nobody likes Congress. We could rename that street,” he said.