During the day, Wharf Street is an ideal backdrop for photos, a narrow, bumpy, undulating cobblestone alley lined with historic brick buildings in the heart of Portland’s Old Port.

Several bars enliven the street at night and sometimes lead to balance-defying scenes after last call, especially for those who have over-imbibed or are walking in high-heeled shoes.

“It feels European,” said 65-year-old Tom Barton, a New Hampshire resident who had just taken a selfie with his 29-year-old daughter Paige.

Now, city officials are considering smoothing some of Wharf Street’s rough edges.

In the coming weeks, city officials will meet with local business owners to discuss options for rebuilding Wharf Street and Dana Street, an adjacent bumpy road that connects to Commercial Street and the city’s waterfront.

A woman walks along an uneven part of Dana Street in Portland’s Old Port last week. City officials will meet next month with businesses owners along Dana and Wharf streets to discuss proposals to make the footing a little easier on pedestrians, among other things. Often referred to as a cobblestone street, it is actually made up of quarried granite blocks. Staff Photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

“The primary goal of this project is to improve these two streets to comply with ADA standards, improve drainage and current surface conditions, and evaluate circulation for vehicular and pedestrian safety,” the city says on its website.

Ideas reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board in December appear to include continued use of granite stones, although in some cases without the deep grooves between the stones or with smoother surfaces interspersed to make it less bumpy. One concept would expand the existing sidewalk on the upland side of Wharf Street, while another would maintain the existing sidewalk and place larger granite pavers in the middle of the cobblestone.

More dramatic changes are being eyed for Dana Street, a cobblestone road that extends up from Commercial Street and has street parking for about a dozen vehicles. One concept would create a “pocket park” between Wharf and Commercial streets with granite benches, trees and bike racks. Another shows a shared street, with expanded pedestrian areas, but preserving parking spaces. Some options would maintain vehicle access on Dana from Fore Street, while others would eliminate it.

A meeting had been scheduled for Dec. 17, but it was cancelled because of a snowstorm. A city spokesperson said the meeting will be rescheduled for late January.

The city paid Aceto Landscape Architecture $5,000 to come up with the alternatives, according to Dena Libner, an assistant to the city manager for constituent services. The city did not provide any cost information for the various concepts.

Wharf Street didn’t exist until Commercial Street was created using fill in the mid-to-late 1800’s. Its name didn’t appear in any city directory until 1929.

A rendering shows one idea for rebuilding Wharf Street in Portland’s Old Port. Rendering by Aceto Landscape Architecture and Urban Design

What is now Wharf Street is nowhere near as old as it appears. It took shape in the late 1970s and early ’80s, when a city directory included the current two-block stretch between Moulton and Union streets, bisected by Dana Street.

Several merchants had set up in the former alley and in 1979, the city invested nearly $200,000 in the 600-feet stretch with the intent of turning it into a pedestrian walkway.

While Wharf Street’s surface gives the impression of history, it is not built with authentic cobblestones – naturally rounded stones that were collected and used to pave early roads. Although commonly referred to as cobblestone, including by the city and its consultant, Wharf Street’s surface is made up of quarried granite blocks, or pavers with rounded edges.

A man and woman walk along Wharf Street in Portland last week. Staff photo by Gregory Rec Buy this Photo

The street used to host a collection of eclectic retail stores, until bars and restaurants began to take over in the 1990’s.

Public Works Director Christopher Branch said in a Dec. 11 memo that the project is being done at the request of local businesses to “facilitate safer deliveries, expanded space for outdoor seating, and safety and accessibility improvements to attract more businesses.”

Branch attributed the street’s warped condition to “years of poor street drainage, increased vehicle & pedestrian use, deferred maintenance, and weather related wear and tear.”

“Visitors and residents alike have a difficult time navigating the uneven streets and sidewalks,” Branch wrote.

Branch said the existing sidewalks would be rebuilt and widened where necessary to comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

“Each option includes reconstructing the street to a suitable condition and using existing materials like cobblestones and brick to keep the character of these historic streets,” Branch said in the memo. “Street trees, lighting, benches, and trash receptacles are included in the alternatives, but subject to further discussion as a result of public input and project funding.”

Nancy Lawrence, owner of Portmanteau, an artisan shop that makes bags, jackets and cloaks, said she’s been advocating for the city to take better care of the streets for years. She remembers when Wharf Street was built using federal funding. It had new  paving stone, large timber gates to keep out traffic, benches and trees.

But over the years, the trees were cut down. The benches were removed because too many young people were hanging out downtown. And the paving stone was not maintained.

Now that city officials are talking about rebuilding it, Lawrence has mixed feelings. She’s mostly worried about when the work will begin and how long it will last.

“If it happens (during) the height of my season and it is protracted I would be out of business,” Lawrence said.

Lawrence said one area business owner had suggested that the city build a brick sidewalk down the middle of the road to improve accessibility.

Improving maintenance and restricting vehicle access were also suggested by Tessa Storey, general manager of Higher Grounds, a two-year-old coffee shop on the Union Street side of Wharf Street.

“It’s a beautiful and historically preserved street, but we’re the ones out there picking up cigarette butts and trash,” Storey said. “We want it to be a more walkable street completely closed to traffic.”

Barton, the visitor, said he’d also like to see traffic restricted on the street and empathized with the need to make it more accessible. But he hopes the city employs a light touch.

“Do not change it,” he said. “It’s beautiful.”

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