Thursday, April 24, 2014
By Tim Baehr
PORTLAND — The proposed expansion of the St. Lawrence Arts Center has generated much commentary, some of it inaccurate.
Tim Baehr is a resident of Portland’s Munjoy Hill neighborhood and founding member of Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill. He can be contacted at: email@example.com.
The group Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill has been characterized, in print and verbal communication, as a small group of neighbors and troublemakers who want to kill or “shoot down” the arts center, as stated in the subtitle to a recent Press Herald column by Greg Kesich (“Stagnation a steep price to pay for free and easy parking,” Feb. 12).
This “small group of neighbors” (plus the 600 who have signed a petition we circulated) are not trying to kill, block or shoot down the proposed new music hall. We simply have expressed reservations about the size, design and capacity of the building.
The capacity in particular, at 401 seats and a potential for 485 patrons at a single event, is troubling because of the likely impact on parking on Munjoy Hill, which is already tight in this densely populated neighborhood. Even now, with 110 people attending a play at the current theater – the former St. Lawrence parish hall – parking is already at the saturation point.
We’ve been accused of favoring “stagnation” in order to maintain “free and easy parking” – wanting drivers to have several free and empty parking spaces at once: at home, at work and at shopping destinations. This is silly, and not anything the Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill has ever suggested or implied.
Parking spaces are not kept empty. They’re typically used by several cars in a day. We all know that at times we have to play musical chairs to find a parking space in Portland.
Parking and growth are not an either-or proposition, as if we had to choose between a growing city with no parking and a city with parking but no growth. Either kind of city would, ultimately, be unlivable. The key is to achieve a balance.
Other places with limited parking, such as the Old Port, have been compared to Munjoy Hill. The comparison is inappropriate on three accounts.
First, the Old Port doesn’t have to play host to 200 or so cars converging on it all at once to get parked in time for the beginning of a concert. Second, the Old Port has a parking garage. Third, the Old Port is not primarily a residential neighborhood.
The Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill and the Friends of the St. Lawrence are actually in agreement on several points. We both welcome a new concert hall. We both are concerned about the impact on the neighborhood. We both see parking issues as contributing most to the impact.
We also agree that the transportation demand management plan in the latest St. Lawrence proposal is incomplete. The St. Lawrence people have acknowledged that the plan needs more work and more community input. For example, they have said that they’re still working on the details of a proposed shuttle from the Cutter Street lot.
Questions still to be answered:
• How can the Cutter Street lot be made more attractive than on-street parking, so that drivers aren’t circling the neighborhood first before giving up and heading for Cutter Street?
• How quickly can 150 to 200 people be moved between Cutter Street and the music hall?
• What happens in foul weather, or when snow has piled up?
Another part of the transportation demand management plan states that there should be plenty of on-street parking within 900 feet of the music hall. It remains to be seen whether patrons will want to walk that far, especially during a thunderstorm, a blizzard or when they have to pick their way around piles of snow.
One solution to the parking dilemma is to design a smaller concert hall and figure out how such a hall could meet the financial goals of St. Lawrence Arts.
The magic number for the organization right now is 401 seats. What if, for some compelling reason, the new concert hall had been limited to 250 seats from the start?
My guess is that the Friends of St. Lawrence would have found a way to make it work. And I believe the group still can.
There will be several community and Planning Board meetings about the St. Lawrence expansion; the next is at 7:30 p.m. in the East End School on Feb. 27. I hope, along with my fellow members of the Concerned Citizens of Munjoy Hill, that the meetings will be productive – without drama or name-calling.
— Special to the Press Herald