Portland officials are eyeing a multimillion-dollar makeover of two of the city’s most photogenic streets.

City Manager Jon Jennings said staff members are recommending a project to remake Wharf and Dana streets in the Old Port using money from the American Rescue Plan Act, a one-time infusion of $46.3 million in federal funding aimed at helping communities recover from the pandemic.

“Even prior to the pandemic, we were looking at the permanent closures of Dana and Wharf streets,” Jennings told city councilors last Monday. “That is actually one of the staff recommendations for the ARPA funds in getting that done.”

The announcement came prior to the City Council’s unanimous approval last Monday to keep the two streets – plus a one-block stretch of Milk Street – closed to traffic, so restaurants and bars would have more room for outdoor dining.

The approval was part of the city’s Open Air Portland plan, which made permanent certain accommodations for businesses struggling through the pandemic, including reducing fees restaurants must pay to use on-street parking spots for outdoor dining.

The city has been collecting feedback from residents, businesses and public health providers about how to spend the federal funding. At a Sept. 14 public hearing, councilors heard support for investing in public restrooms, child care, alternatives for caring for people with mental health issues and subsidizing harbor pilots, who are responsible for docking large ships that call to port.

The City Council’s Finance Committee is expected to hear a presentation from staff members on Thursday about projects they would like to see funded. A City Hall spokesperson said Friday those recommendations are not yet finalized.

City officials first released several options for redesigning Wharf and Dana streets in December 2019 and held an initial public meeting in January 2020. The narrow streets of stone pavers flanked by historic brick buildings are iconic, especially among visitors and photographers.

Vinny and Maria Holister of Somers, Connecticut, walk along the cobblestones on Wharf Street in Portland’s Old Port. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

But city officials have said poor drainage has caused the streets to warp and become uneven, making them difficult for people with disabilities and late night revelers alike to traverse.

Ideas reviewed by the city’s Historic Preservation Board 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 short 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. In that scenario, cars would no longer be allowed on that section of Dana Street. Another idea shows a shared street, with expanded pedestrian areas.

Some of the earlier options would have maintained vehicle access on Dana and preserved parking spaces, but that would not be allowed now that the council has closed the street to traffic.

Jennings said in an email Thursday that the staff does not have a preferred alternative for the project, which could cost at least $3 million.

“At this time these are conceptual renderings. More design work and outreach will need to be done before a final design is settled on for consideration and funding,” he said. “Unfortunately, we know costs have escalated over the last year, so not sure of the costs.”

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