The Congress Square redesign project at the intersections of High, Free and Congress streets has been delayed by a utility-related complication. Businesses on Free Street and beyond are experiencing some of the negative effects of the closure. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

A construction complication has halted work on the redesign of Portland’s Congress Square, keeping Free Street closed longer than expected and upsetting nearby business owners.

The project’s first phase of construction, which began in April, was expected to be completed – and Free Street reopened – in mid-June. But the work is on hold while the city waits for replacement covers for two utility vaults that were damaged during the construction.

“We understand it’s an inconvenience for so many people, and we’re working to get it opened up as quickly as possible,” said Mike Murray, acting director of the city’s public works department. “We’re not pleased about it. I’m sure businesses aren’t pleased about it.”

The $7.2 million redesign of the intersection and park across the street, meant to improve traffic flow and pedestrian safety, is scheduled to happen in three phases. The first phase – reconfiguring the flow of traffic at Congress, High and Free streets – is expected to be the most disruptive. The second phase is supposed to begin in the fall, with the aim of completing the project by 2024.

Mandy Lacourse, owner of Marcy’s Diner, said the Congress Square redesign project, which started earlier this year, has disrupted business. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Mandy Lacourse, owner of Marcy’s Diner on the corner of Oak and Free streets, said her business has been down 40-50 percent during the construction, and she worries about how long she can sustain that.

“The irony is that we made it through 2 ½ years of COVID – keeping our community, staff and customers safe by not serving inside – only to be maybe put out of business by our own city,” Lacourse said. 

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The two utility vaults – underground structures that house telecommunications equipment – are owned by Central Maine Power and Consolidated Communications, though neither of the utility companies was aware that the vaults existed.

While digging out part of Congress Square in May, a backhoe destroyed the concrete covers of the vaults, which must be water-tight to function properly.

The city hopes to replace the cover to Central Maine’s utility vault next week and resume work that doesn’t require digging near the utility vaults. But Consolidated Communication’s vault cover needs to be custom made. Because of that, Murray could not estimate how long the delay would be.

“Our primary focus is, we want to get Free Street open to motor vehicle traffic, and we want to re-establish pedestrian access along that section of Congress and High Street,” Murray said.

He attributes the complication to the fact that project has been in development for so long.

“It doesn’t happen very often. Unfortunately, this project has been eight years in the making, and many of the people who worked on the initial phases of this and the planning portion of it, they’re no longer with the city,” Murray said.

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Under its contract, the construction company working on Free Street, Gordon Contracting of Sangerville, will be granted more time to complete the project because of the delay. Murray does not expect the city to incur additional costs because of it.

Rendering of a redesign of Portland’s Congress Square that will include new public art and improvements to traffic flow, landscaping, crosswalks and sidewalks. Rendering courtesy of WRT Planning + Design

“The electrical work and whatnot were not scheduled to start until next week anyway, so there’ll be a flurry of activity starting next week,” he said. “We lost a couple of weeks on that, we lost a couple of weeks trying to figure out what to do, but the contractors are committed to making sure that this work gets done.”

Lacourse is frustrated by the lack of communication from the city, which sent a memo to Free Street businesses about the delay on June 15. She believes that the city should have contacted Free Street businesses as soon as they encountered the utility issue in May.

“Nobody knew (the utility vaults) were there? Not even CMP? I find it to be ridiculous,” Lacourse said. “(The city) should have reached out to every business and said, ‘Hey, this is happening. Let’s think of ways we can counteract some of the down time you could have.’ “

Russ Sargent, owner of Yes Books, believes he’s losing business that normally comes from the Portland Museum of Art because of the construction. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Russ Sargent, the owner of Yes Books on Congress Street, doesn’t know for sure that the construction has contributed to his declining sales, but he thinks that the extended closure has had an impact on his store. 

“I’m in the culture business. People walking out of the art museum are my primary customers. Those people are now blocked,” he said.

If the project forces businesses to close, Lacourse said, it could render the goal of creating a more pedestrian-friendly Congress Square meaningless.

“Pedestrian-friendly to what? Because there’s not going to be anything left,” Lacourse said. “I’m all for improvements, but the city has really dropped the ball.”

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