Portland is poised to rename a downtown park to honor a former city manager known for his ability to get Urban Renewal projects done in the 1960s and ’70s – including some of the same projects the city is now moving to undo.

On Monday, the City Council will consider renaming the plaza known locally as Lobsterman Park, at the corner of Temple and Middle streets, “the John E. Menario Plaza.” The statue depicting a Maine lobsterman would remain.

In addition to the reconstruction and widening of Spring and Franklin streets, and selecting the site of what is now the Cross Insurance Arena, Menario oversaw the city’s removal of more than 100 homes deemed to be urban blight in the 1960s, including a section of town known as “Little Italy.”

City Manager Jon Jennings said he wanted to find a way to honor Menario, whom he met while exploring the possibility of becoming Portland city manager last year.

“John has been a role model for me,” Jennings said. “He’s an example of a strong city manager who wasn’t shy to give his opinions during his time and certainly worked with the council to make great changes in the city.”

Jennings said renaming the park after Menario is a way to acknowledge the impact he had on the city, rather than endorsing any specific policy or philosophy.

“In his time, I think he made very wise decisions,” Jennings said. “It’s always easy to look at the past with 20/20 hindsight, but that doesn’t mean things don’t change. Twenty or 30 years from now a city manager will look back and question some of my decisions.”

If approved, it would be the fourth tribute to a former Portland city manager. Lyman S. Moore has a middle school named after him, Bob Ganley has the City Hall plaza, and Joseph Gray has a portion of the Eastern Promenade Trail leading to the Ocean Gateway Terminal.

‘EXTRAORDINARY HONOR’

Menario, 80, said it was an “extraordinary honor” to have a park named after him.

“Portland is my hometown. I grew up in Portland,” he said. “I worked with strong council members with a lot of political courage. In the nine years I was there, they adopted so many projects and policies and programs that basically transformed the city from a city of blight and deterioration into one of the most livable and economically positive communities in New England.”

Menario was Portland’s city manager from 1967 to 1976. Those years capped a 14-year career at City Hall that began with a six-month internship. After leaving City Hall, Menario worked for the Greater Portland Chamber of Commerce, before running his own consulting firm. He ran unsuccessfully for governor in 1986 as an independent candidate. From 1988 to 2003, he worked as a banking executive.

An editorial in the Evening Express on Nov. 20, 1975, described Menario’s control over the elected council.

“Almost without exception, the Portland City Council has been a mirror of his philosophy, his views and his beliefs. … So completely has the council become an instrument of Menario that his unexpected resignation will, to a major degree, leave the council leaderless,” it said.

Many of Menario’s initiatives involved the redevelopment of the city and were guided by a planning philosophy and federal program known as Urban Renewal, which is dismissed by many today because it was so heavily automobile-centric and lacked regard for historic buildings.

During Menario’s tenure, about 150 homes were razed to make way for public housing projects and traffic arterials, including Franklin and Spring streets, designed to move heavy volumes of traffic. Public parking garages, including the Temple Street garage that abuts Lobsterman Park, were built.

A plot of city-owned land at Spring, Center and Temple streets was sold, allowing for the construction of the former Cumberland County Civic Center, which is now called the Cross Insurance Arena.

Menario said one of his proudest achievements was “running the slumlords out of the city of Portland. It was a growth industry at the time.”

Over the last decade or so, the city has made efforts to undo a few of those legacies. Much of that effort has focused on Spring and Franklin streets, which the city now wants to scale back and make more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians, as well as neighborhood residents. The city formalized this shift in transportation planning in 2012 when it adopted its Complete Street policy, which planners and politicians tout as being vital for attracting people to live, work and visit a city.

Concrete barriers that once separated traffic lanes on Spring Street have since been removed and bike lanes have been added. Curb extensions – or bump-outs – have been added at some heavily traveled intersections as a way to slow down cars and increase pedestrian safety.

State and High streets were converted from two-way streets to one-way in 1972, during Menario’s tenure. Now, more than 40 years later, the city is considering restoring two-way traffic flow to improve safety for pedestrians and the quality of life for residents.

In January 2015, when the City Council was considering a plan to narrow Franklin Street and make it more bike-pedestrian friendly, Menario penned a five-page letter to councilors and former Mayor Michael Brennan defending the street’s high-capacity design.

“The Franklin Street Arterial’s contribution to the economic health of Portland in the past, now, and into the foreseeable future, is equivalent to a successful quadruple bypass on a patient dying of blocked arteries,” Menario wrote. “Study it all you want but don’t clog it up!!”

Menario even called on the city to move forward with the final, never-completed phase of the Franklin Arterial project – building a tunnel underneath Cumberland, Congress and Middle streets.

Portland’s City Council voted last year to approve a redesign and narrowing of the Franklin Street corridors, although the project has not been funded.

NOT QUITE UNANIMOUS

The order to rename Lobsterman Park comes after the city’s Park Commission voted 5-1 in support of the proposal, with one abstention. It’s co-sponsored by the entire council, except Jon Hinck.

Hinck said he is concerned that Menario’s post-municipal career included advocacy for keeping the Maine Yankee nuclear power plant open, as well as his embrace of Urban Renewal policies that included the Franklin Arterial, which cut off the India Street neighborhood from the downtown, beginning a period of decline from which it is only now beginning to recover.

“With all respect to Mr. Menario, some of those things we refer to as the big mistakes in Portland were done under his watch,” said Hinck, although he also said he holds no personal grudges against the man and could end up supporting the recommendation.


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