'Clever engineering' needed for Thompson's Point traffic in Portland

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PORTLAND — Developers and city officials are predicting the prospective redevelopment of Thompson’s Point will attract thousands of people to the area for events.

The $100 million mixed-used development is expected to hold 3,500 people for a Maine Red Claws professional basketball game, or 4,500 people for a concert. Plans also call for 90,000 square feet of convention space, a 125-room hotel, a restaurant, sports performance lab, about 180,000 square feet of office space, a 700-car garage and surface parking for another 750 vehicles.

But now developers and planners must figure out how to move all of those people into, around and out of the 28-acre site.

The land is near the Portland Jetport, Fore River and Interstate 295, but can only be accessed by one access road off the Fore River Parkway. 

Planning Board member Bill Hall on Tuesday compared the parcel to a pier.

“It really does limit your access,” Hall said in a workshop session. “You can’t get at it from many sides. You’ve got more constraints there dealing with traffic. That’s going to take some clever engineering.”

Tom Gorrill, of Gorrill Palmer, said his firm is working on several different traffic models and the daily demands of the office users.

He said preliminary projections suggest that 1,000 vehicles would access the development during a major event, and predicted traffic would be most congested when events end and people are leaving at the same time.

Gorrill predicted that 75 percent of the exiting traffic would take a right turn onto Fore River Parkway, giving them access to I-295 and West Commercial Street.

The Thompson’s Point Development Co. said it has been working with public safety officials to improve access. It plans on widening the access road to accommodate more traffic and opening up Sewall Street; adding gated, emergency vehicle access, and developing a post-event traffic plan that would include using flaggers to direct traffic.

Fire Chief Fred LaMontagne said he believes the traffic and safety issues are manageable. He also believes that sprinklers and alarms will make the development buildings among the safest in the city.

“It’s a big project,” LaMontagne said. “I think it’s a great location and a great place. I just wanted to make sure you guys were aware we’re spending considerable time on that egress.”

City Councilor Edward Suslovic said neighbors were adamant at a recent meeting that Sewall Street be opened to emergency vehicles only and not general traffic.

Suslovic also said a variety of plans and projects are in the pipeline to improve traffic and bicycle and pedestrian safety on outer Congress Street.

“We’re hoping we can leverage this development to bring these disparate planning elements together to deal with the whole Congress Street corridor at once,” he said.

The City Council recently approved a 30-year tax break for the development and set aside 25 percent of tax revenues for transportation-related projects. At least one councilor would like to use some of that money to fund an express bus service from the Jetport to the project site and to downtown.

The site is also next to the Portland Transportation Center, a hub for the Amtrak Downeaster, Concord Coach Lines and city buses.

Jon Jennings, a managing partner of the development company, said he has received interest from people who want to take advantage of the site’s riverside location and offer a water taxi service to downtown.

But the board’s discussions kept coming back to cars.

Planning Board Chairman Joe Lewis said he is concerned about how neighboring streets would be affected by the development, since some people may try to park off site and walk to the venue to avoid congestion.

“I’m really concerned about how we’re loading up the community with traffic,” he said.

The board is expected to hold another workshop on the project.

Jennings said he hopes the project will have all the necessary permits by the end of the year, which would put it on pace for completion by late 2013.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.