City Manager Jon Jennings recommends closing Dana Street, seen here in July, to vehicle traffic and parking for one year starting April 1. Closures are also recommended on Middle, Milk and Wharf streets. Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — The city is planning Old Port street closings again to give restaurants more room to offer outdoor dining during the pandemic, but this year Exchange Street likely will remain open to vehicle traffic and other streets will be pedestrian-only for one year.

Exchange, sections of Middle and Milk streets and all of Dana and Wharf streets were closed to traffic from June through November of 2020, but in addition to taking Exchange Street off that list, City Manager Jon Jennings is recommending closing Dana and Wharf streets and parts of Middle and Milk streets starting April 1 through March 31, 2022.

“I love the idea of giving it a full year,” Spencer Thibodeau, chairperson of the City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee, said last week. “That is huge so people know if they invest in building something they know how long they can use it.”

The short, cobblestone Dana and Wharf streets offer parking, but see very little traffic.  Dana Street may soon be closed permanently because the city recommends turning it into a pedestrian plaza as part of a master plan for Commercial Street. Traffic is already prohibited on Wharf Street from Memorial Day to Nov. 15.

The Middle Street section being eyed for another year of closure is currently only open to one-way traffic due to outdoor dining and gets close to 5,000 vehicles a day, according to 2019 data from the Maine Department of Transportation.

Businesses are typically allowed to operate outdoor spaces on public sidewalks between early April and early November, but that was extended last year, through mid-November and then through Jan. 2.

The closure of sections of Exchange Street allowed restaurants to offer more outdoor dining during the pandemic, but city staff is not looking to close the road again in 2021 after receiving complaints from some businesses. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

The plan to keep Exchange Street open to traffic is in part due to the mixed reaction from its partial closing last year. Some merchants said its closure hurt their businesses because customers couldn’t find parking nearby. Rob Sevigny, the longtime owner of the 50-year-old Paper Patch greeting card and stationery store, told the Forecaster he decided to shutter the business last September because customers were having a hard time getting to his store.

“The consternation it caused on Exchange Street and the negative feedback we received from businesses is guiding us in the direction of not introducing a closure to traffic and parking on Exchange Street,” said Dena Libner, chief of staff for Jennings.

City surveys with small business owners across the city brought in no clear consensus on the best way to support them, Libner said.

“We believe a variation of the program as it existed last summer currently is the best way to fairly and positively impact as many small businesses as possible,” Libner said.

Councilor Andrew Zarro, who owns the Little Woodfords coffee shop at Congress and Franklin streets, said it is important for the outdoor dining program to be nimble because small business needs are constantly changing.

“The reality is the best way to support small businesses now could be very different by the middle of March,” Zarro said.

The plan seemed to meet the approval of the Housing and Economic Development Committee last week, but must be approved by the full City Council.

Libner said there is a possibility of setting up “parklets” on Exchange Street and other sites throughout the city. Setting up the small outside dining areas in adjacent parking spots may be a better option for restaurants on Exchange Street, she said.

“It will give (restaurants) that additional outdoor dining space and have a smaller impact on the availability of parking and still allow parking and vehicle traffic on the street,” Libner said. “Staff is going to work with applicants to do whatever we can to make sure they have the outdoor space they consider essential for continued operations.”

Jennings said the city is open to additional road closures, parklets or requests for other outdoor dining arrangements.

“We are certainly open to have those conversations,” he said.

Councilor Tae Chong, a member of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, said when roads are closed to vehicles and outdoor dining is expanded, they become more of a destination point. Because of that, Chong said he would like to see more public art  or music provided for diners.

“We should try to figure out a way for them to be visually attractive for people to go and visit and stick around so the other businesses also benefit,” Chong said.

Jennings said the city can reach out to artists who may be interested in decorating them.

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