Diners eat outside on Dana Street last month. The city is recommending permanently closing Dana Street along with Wharf Street and part of Milk Street to allow for more outdoor dining from April to October. Despite concerns about displaced parking, the idea has the support of the city’s housing and economic development committee. Michele McDonald / Portland Press Herald

As the city advocates for making permanent some of the outdoor dining options put in place during the pandemic, some Portland city councilors are urging the city to think creatively on how downtown parking can be better managed if that happens.

The slate of recommended changes, which the council is expected to review Sept. 8, includes removing the cap on the number of parklets – outdoor dining setups in public parking spaces – in the city; allowing businesses to apply for up to two adjacent parklets; temporarily lowering the parklet application fee; waiving certain eligibility requirements; and permanently closing Dana Street, Wharf Street and a portion of Milk Street from Exchange Street to Market Street to through traffic.

“I like the continuation of this program and its expansion, but parking does come up to us a lot,” said Mayor Kate Snyder.

While the parklets and closure of city streets may help businesses safely and efficiently offer al-fresco dining, they also reduce the amount of parking available downtown. There are currently 37 parklets in operation, covering 52 parking spaces, according to Dena Libner, the city manager’s chief of staff.

Closing Dana and part of Milk Street would result in the loss of 20 parking spaces, approximately 1% of the on-street parking spaces in downtown, Libner said in a Sept. 1 memorandum to councilors.

Jessica Hunter, owner of Ethan Hunter Salon on 395 Fore St., said the expansion of outdoor dining, coupled with the construction on nearby Fore Street Garage, has made it difficult for customers to park.

“We are noticing many of the restaurants are open at night, so all day long we are having these empty spots that you can’t park in anymore,” she said. “We are having clients who either miss their appointment because they can’t find a spot or call up and cancel altogether because they can’t find a spot.”

Libner said city staff understands her concern.

“It can feel like a waste of a space during the day, but we don’t have the staff capacity to permit (parklets) for certain hours of the day, have them opened and closed and oversee and enforce that,” she said. “We recognize it’s ideal to make it a dynamic space and activate it for some times and not others, but it is not something we have the capacity to do.”

City parking manager John Peverada told the economic development committee he was originally concerned about the loss of parking to parklets, but that it hadn’t become a big issue because fewer people are heading downtown due to the pandemic. Furthermore, he said, city garages still have plenty of hourly parking available.

Nevertheless, committee members agreed the city may be wise to look into ways to reduce the amount of traffic downtown and, by extension, the number of motorists looking for parking.

Snyder suggested the city look into a shuttle pilot program from the parking lot on Marginal Way for people looking to shop or eat downtown, much like was done in 2019 to get islanders to and from the Casco Bay Ferry Terminal.

“I’d love an opportunity to explore that,” she said.

Councilor Tae Chong wondered if there was a way to “reward people” by offering cheaper parking outside the heart of downtown. Peverada said that is possible, but it may not entice people to park farther away. He said two city parking garages that have a $3 hourly rate – on Elm and Spring streets – don’t fill up as fast as others in the city, such as the Fore Street Garage and Temple Street garage, which charge $5 to $6 an hour and do a better business.

“The incremental increase in the hourly rate is not affecting behavior,” Peverada said.

Councilor Pious Ali asked Peverada if it would be possible to adopt a program like London, England has, in which motorists pay a fee to drive into congested parts of the city. The practice is not common; major cities such as New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco have discussed it, but have not implemented it.

Peverada called that idea aggressive and cautioned against it.

“We don’t want to give people a reason not to come to downtown,” he said.

Libner said to her knowledge there were no traffic incidents or traffic flow issues as a result of the street closures during the parklet program.

“Based on what we observed over the past year, there were no negative consequences based on the closures or the parklets,” she said.

Under the current recommendations, the outdoor dining arrangement on Middle Street would be discontinued and two-way traffic would resume on the section between Franklin and India streets. The city is also looking into the possibility of permanently closing Boothby Square on Fore Street, but is awaiting data from the Maine Department of Transportation.

The current outdoor dining allowances are set to expire in November, but Libner said the city staff is asking for current outdoor dining provisions to be extended until April 15, 2022 “to give businesses a little more time to recover from the impact of the pandemic.” The council is expected to weigh in on that request Wednesday, Sept. 8.

According to an August survey, more than 80% of respondents supported the permanent closures of Dana, Wharf and a section of Milk streets, and close to tw0-thirds of the 85 respondents felt allowing businesses two adjacent parklets was a good idea and that parklets should be capped at no more than 20.

In 2018, City Manager Jon Jennings set a cap of only allowing five parklets city-wide. In an effort to help businesses safely serve customers outside during the pandemic, 60 parklet permits were granted in 2020.

Chris Korzen, a resident of Hampshire Street, supports the changes.

“It has been a welcomed addition to the neighborhood,” Korzen said of the five parklets located her his residence. “In general it has been a nice thing to have during the pandemic.”

Comments are not available on this story.