SOUTH PORTLAND- The South Portland City Council made a sudden about-face Monday, reversing a June decision on Knightville parking spaces set to be laid down this fall following completion of a $3.6 million utility upgrade and street improvement project, and opening the way for angled parking to remain on Ocean Street.

The move sets up a series of zoning and traffic control votes next month that should retain the parking configuration favored by downtown businesses. Some local residents worried the ruling will cause irrevocably harm their neighborhoods, but the council, in a 6-1 vote sided with Alan Livingston, who last month faulted his peers for not supporting local commerce.

At that time, Livingston drew only silence when entreating his fellow councilors to retain angled parking where it now exists, on the western side of Ocean Street for the two blocks between C Street and Legion Square. Businesses in the downtown district have made that same demand since January, when learning of plans to re-stripe the street with parallel spaces on either side.

Livingston’s critique followed a June 11 workshop at which the council lined up 4-3 in favor of the new layout, even in the face of vocal opposition predicting “the death knell” of local commerce, based on the assumption that customers will bypass the area if faced with the challenge of parallel parking.

However, since then, 90 letters decrying the decision have flooded city inboxes. Only three were sent before Livingston chastised the council. Most (53) arrived in a single blast between July 25-30. All were addressed to City Manager Jim Gailey.

“I’m still looking for my email address that must be on some digital board down in the district. I appreciate whoever is passing that out,” joked Gailey at Monday’s special workshop session, requested by Livingston on the strength of the electronic uprising.

But Rosemarie De Angelis, the council’s lone holdout for parallel parking, noted an odd discrepancy in the messages. Most, she said, voiced support for the current configuration as if the choice is between parallel parking and what’s now on the ground. “Not a single one,” she said, seemed to know that angled parking can exist only if one travel lane is eliminated, making Ocean Street one-way for at least two blocks.

“They’re not getting that,” she said. “So, whoever is promoting this email campaign is not saying that it’s going to require one-way traffic. We have an uniformed public, in my opinion.”

De Angelis went on counter the conventional wisdom that parallel parking is too hard for older drivers and too foreign to the experience of younger ones.

“People could parallel park a lot better if they used two hands the way my father taught me, and not have one hand on a cellphone,” she said. “Parallel parking with two hands, using your eyes and your ears and paying attention, is really quite simple.

“I’m happy to give lessons,” said De Angelis, “because I could parallel park in the middle of New York City in an 18-wheeler if I had to.”

Still, despite an impassioned plea from De Angelis, along with a handful of Knightville residents who claimed a one-way flow will send an undo amount of cars onto their side streets, three councilors changed their position from the June workshop.

The defection of Maxine Beecher, Tom Coward and Mayor Patti Smith now sets up a series of September votes needed to map out the new direction.

According to Gailey, the council will spend its Sept. 5 meeting reviewing zoning changes needed to alter the angled parking from the city standard – 60 degrees at the curb – to the latest recommendation set forth in state traffic guidelines – 45 degrees. That change would then go to the Planning Board for review on Sept. 10 and return to the council for a final vote on Sept. 17. The amendment will require five council votes to pass.

“So, it’s still not a done deal,” said Councilor Gerard Jalbert, after Monday’s meeting.

On Sept. 17, Gailey said, the council also will get its first look at an order to make some portion of Ocean Street one way. Based on Monday’s debate, the council is currently divided on whether the one-way flow should encompass only the two blocks where the angled spaces will be, or the entire length of Ocean Street, from Legion Square to Waterman Drive. However, whatever plan wins support can pass with a simple majority of four votes.

Debating details

About 30 residents and business owners attended Monday’s council workshop. Several called on retention of angled parking spaces with cries of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, Councilor Tom Blake pointed out that Knightville is broken, at least four feet below the surface. That’s where stormwater runoff floods city pipes, causing some 14 million gallons of raw sewage to discharge into Casco Bay each year.

A $1.44 million “sewer separation” project aims to divert runoff into separate catch basins. While the streets have been opened, the Portland Water District has taken the opportunity to upgrade water mains that date to 1892. Meanwhile, Gailey saw the project as an opportunity to improve the functionality and aesthetics of the street.

When announcing the project last year, Gailey noted that public works crews have trouble clearing sidewalks because of the short space between buildings and trees, lamp posts and other objects. Asked by Livingston why the city couldn’t simply buy a narrower plow, Gailey said sidewalk plows only come in standard widths.

According to Dan Riley, an engineer with Sebago Technics, the local firm in charge of the project, the widening of sidewalks on Ocean Street will only rob “about a foot” from the roadway. More space is to be lost, he said, at street corners, where new “bump-outs” include handicapped ramps and space for trees and new LED streetlights. Meanwhile, state and city standards call on parking spaces to be both wider and longer than is currently found on Ocean Street.

Given that, Riley said, a demand for angled parking leaves no room for two, 24-foot-wide lanes of traffic.

The solution adopted Monday – first offered by Riley as an alternative in March after business owners began to protest, but later ditched by the council in favor of Plan A – is for 12 parking spaces angled at 45 degrees on the west side of Ocean Street, with parallel spaces on the east side, resulting in a net loss of one space between C and E streets from the 19 angled spots there now, but a gain of four spots in the district.

The parallel-only plan called for nine parallel spots in front of the Smaha block and six across where there is no parking. There would be no net loss of spots, however, because parking would be extended up the street an additional 700 feet.

Blake asked if the parallel parking on the east side of Ocean could be cut to make room for two travel lanes in a configuration similar to what exists today. Riley said it could happen, but only by eliminating the street corner bump-outs. That was an idea Gailey objected to “strongly.”

“It’s too late to work this out,” said Gailey. “Those curb lines are in place. This project is 75 percent done. We have two and a half months to button this up and its just not feasible to do a total redesign of that side of the road.”

Gailey suggested that had work begun in April, “maybe” a different design plan could have been drafted. That prompted an arched brow from Livingston, who recalled being told in April that it was too late to maintain the status quo even then. Riley later stepped in to contradict Gailey, saying that space limitations always stood between project completion and any parking layout similar to what is in place today.

During the two-hour debate, there were several new voices not heard at previous meetings on the topic, but relatively little new ground was covered. Most of the arguments made on both sides mirrored those expressed at some half dozen council meetings since January.

Planning Board member Caroline Hendry, a resident of B Street, echoed concern that the one-way flow needed to accommodate the demand for angled parking would divert cars on the so-called “alphabet streets.” Like others, she waved off the “sign pollution” needed to prevent drivers from making those turns to circle the block.

However, while many tried to mitigate an apparent conflict between residents and business owners in Knightville, Hendry made it clear that the city is now three-for-three in favor of business interests.

With the construction of the 100 Waterman Drive complex, the allowance of boat-docking at South Port Marine, and now the placement of what she called “a parking lot” on Ocean Street, the city has more than met its commercial obligations, said Hendry.

Although Hendry complimented the city for recent improvements to Ocean Street, City Hall and Mill Creek Park, she faulted those previous decisions for a slow, “commercial creep” in Knightville.

“Mixed use is what it is and that should be honored,” she said.

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