Streets and parking spaces that have been closed off to cars to allow for more outdoor dining and retail space in Portland during the pandemic could become permanent features of the city.
The city manager’s office is proposing to keep Dana and Wharf streets, and one block of Milk Street permanently closed to traffic, as they are now. It also recommends permanent expansion of the city’s parklet program, which allows restaurants and other businesses to create outdoor spaces in on-street parking spots and other public spaces.
Portland approved a pilot program for parklets in 2019 that capped the number at five spaces citywide, but the limit was temporarily loosened for the pandemic. In 2020, businesses made use of about 60 parking spaces, according to a memorandum explaining the recommendations from Dena Libner, chief of staff in the office of City Manager Jon Jennings. This year, there are 37 licensed parklets. The proposal would remove the limit on the total number and temporarily lower fees for them.
The City Council’s Housing and Economic Development Committee will hold a hearing on the proposal during a remote meeting Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. The permanent street closings and reduced parklet fees must be approved by a vote of the whole City Council, while the other changes can be made by city staff.
Restaurant owners interviewed about the proposal this week were in favor of it and credited the city’s outdoor dining measures with helping to keep restaurants in business. But some had concerns about the impact on parking and traffic. At least one said the proposal could give some restaurant owners – the ones on closed streets – a potential advantage over competitors.
Daniel Talmatch, owner of The North Point on Silver Street, said the two parklets he’s been using by his restaurant’s back door have been crucial to keeping his business open. But Talmatch also said restaurants like his, which aren’t on closed streets, might be at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting customers looking for an outside dining experience.
“Certainly a street closing is a far better option for outdoor dining (than a parklet) in terms of safety and just getting the most out of it,” said Talmatch. “Overall, I think it’s a good idea (to keep the streets closed), but it doesn’t help me too much.”
Several people in the Old Port this week thought the proposal to make expanded outdoor dining measures permanent was a good idea. Michal Kleinlerer, waiting for a table at Eventide Oyster Co., said she was surprised when she moved to Portland from New York City and found there were relatively few outdoor dining options. She said more outdoor dining “makes things more vibrant and more exciting” in a city.
Nancy Caldwell of Portland, strolling down Pearl Street, also like the proposal. She said outdoor dining gives restaurants more capacity – making it easier for people to get a table – and gives the city a more active vibe.
District 2 Councilor Spencer Thibodeau, chairman of the committee, said he generally favors the proposal, since it would continue to help restaurants survive as COVID-19 cases continue to climb and some people remain cautious about indoor dining. He said making the rules permanent would help restaurant owners plan for the winter and beyond, since outdoor dining rules during the pandemic have been temporary. Thibodeau also said he thought expanding outdoor dining rules would help make the city, especially the Old Port, more inviting and lively in the long run.
“Of all the bad things to come out of the pandemic, the expansion of outdoor dining has been a really good one, ” Thibodeau said.
While the proposal calls for the permanent closing of Dana, Wharf and part of Milk Street to traffic year-round, businesses will be permitted to operate on those streets only from April to November, to allow for snow removal, Libner said.
The city’s proposal also recommends allowing businesses to apply for two adjacent 8-by-20-foot parklets – instead of just one, as was the case before the pandemic – and reducing the parklet fees from $5,520 each to $3,000 for one space and $5,000 for two. The fee should be re-evaluated annually, city staff recommended.
Libner said in an email that city staff crafted the proposal, dubbed Open Air Portland, because “many residents and small businesses have made it clear they’re interested in doing more outdoors. Open Air Portland would help them continue to use certain City streets for dining, retail, and recreation.” She said city staff emailed surveys about outdoor dining and other business activity to business owners and other groups.
Krista Cole, owner of Sur Lie on Free Street, said she loved the idea of keeping streets closed and opening up more parklets. She said that creating more outdoor dining and pedestrian-only areas will encourage people to walk around the Old Port more and see all that the area has to offer. But she did wonder if it would affect parking, making it more scarce in the Old Port.
“If there are no limits on parklets, I’m not sure what the repercussions of that are on parking. I think we should be mindful of that,” said Cole, who has been using two parking spaces, with seating for about 20, outside her restaurant. “There would need to be some guidance on where folks could park.”
Libner said there are more than 700 on-street parking spaces in the Old Port and the permanent street closures would eliminate about 20. She said city staff would look for opportunities to add new spaces in the area.
Pious Ali, an at-large city councilor and member of the Housing and Economic Development Committee, said he’d like to see information on how the street closings have affected traffic and safety in the Old Port. Thibodeau said traffic counts and fire and safety measures were considered by city staff when Dana, Wharf and part of Milk Street were selected for temporary closure.
Meaghan Bailey of Portland, who was walking in the Old Port on Wednesday, said she likes the idea of making outdoor dining a permanent feature of the city. But she also urged city officials to go slow and assess the impact of closing off streets.
“As long as they do it gradually, it’s great idea,” she said.
Josh Miranda, owner of Via Vecchia on Dana Street and Blyth & Burrows on Exchange Street, commended the city for its fast action in implementing outdoor dining measures last year, and for wanting to continue them permanently.
The parklet he created outside Blyth & Burrows has been important in making up revenue he lost when he closed a speakeasy-type room in the back of the establishment, because it wasn’t conducive to social distancing. Closing Dana Street has transformed that area into a lively dining center. He has built a deck outside Via Vecchia and other eateries have built on the sloping cobblestone street, too.
“It’s really a quaint street now with a lot of charm,” said Miranda. “I know the city gets a lot of grief for some things, but when they saw that restaurants were struggling, they really leaned in and did a lot to help. I used my outdoor seating all winter long.”
Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy contributed to this story.