‘Friends’ push Woodfords Corner rebirth in Portland

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PORTLAND — Woodfords Corner is one of the oldest and busiest intersections in the state.

On Tuesday, Jan. 23, the Friends of Woodfords Corner are hosting a meeting to promote taking a fresh look at the area and its businesses. The meeting will be held on the second floor of the Oddfellows Hall, 651 Forest Ave.

“We are just getting to know people, still shaking hands and handing out information,” Friends President Teresa Valliere said Jan. 12.

At the meeting, there will be updates on the $5.65 million project to improve traffic flow and access for pedestrians and bicyclists through the stretch of Forest Avenue from the area of Arlington and Lincoln streets to beyond the railroad grade crossing near Concord Street.

As important is the chance to look to the future beyond the road work that will begin again this spring.

“Our hope is with the design, there will be spots that just feel safer,” Valliere said.

She estimated there are about 200 businesses in the area extending outward a half-mile from the intersection of Forest and Deering avenues and Woodford Street.

Formed in 2015, the Friends have advocated for the future of an area surrounded by four residential neighborhoods with a cleanup around the railroad tracks, and a September 2017 block party. They also work with city officials on details of the construction and snow removal.

Seafood, tanning, tax returns, workouts and coffee comprise the commerce in Woodfords Corner, which also boasts several ethnic groceries and restaurants with cuisine ranging from basic to global.

“Empty storefronts have never been a problem,” Friends of Woodfords Corner board member William Redding said Jan. 12.

If economic activity has been strong, the sense of place has been weaker. The second phase of work on Forest Avenue this spring is designed to create that sense, with a new plaza area outside the Oddfellow’s Hall as a centerpiece.

The plaza will be created by removing a right turn lane from Forest to Woodford Street, and the city Public Art Commission is spending $25,000 for sculpted lamp posts at the spot.

The overall effect of widened curbs at intersections, improved crosswalks, new benches and new planters are intended to promote a village feel business owners are ready to embrace.

“This is my community. It has taken people a while to realize Woodfords is an amazing commercial corridor,” Andrew Zarro said Jan. 12.

Zarro and his partner, T. J. Quinn, opened Little Woodfords, a Forest Avenue coffee shop just blocks from his home.

“If we can hold on as a business community, with our neighbors, it will be worth it,” he said of completing the road work.

Zarro has also joined the Friends board, and his suggestions for outreach include multi-lingual printings of invitations and other Friends’ communications.

“It is a small gesture with a huge impact,” he said.

Across the street, Justin Van Soest and David Leith worked on the new space for the Bakery Photo Collective, which recently shifted to Woodfords Corner from the Dana Warp Mill in Westbrook.

“We foresee this as a perfect spot,” Van Soest said Jan. 12. “I see this intersection as a gateway to greater Portland.”

The Collective provides space and resources for photographers and their art, including access to equipment that might otherwise be unaffordable.

Leith, who lives in Yarmouth, said easy access is also a draw.

“I expect to spend a lot more time here, it is easy coming in from Back Cove,” he said.

The Collective is opening in a building bought by artist Jocelyn Lee last year. Lee likened the developing energy in Woodfords Corner to South Congress Street in Austin, Texas, or the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn.

“It is starting to be really self-sustaining; you can spend the whole day here,” Lee said.

The diversity of business owners is as important as the diversity of businesses, Valliere said. Ready for a quick lunch after greeting business owners, she stepped into the halal grocery that is under new ownership after its former owner pleaded guilty to federal welfare fraud charges last November.

As she ate, store owners Esraa Al Zuabidi and Nabaa Al Obaidi greeted a steady stream of customers and talked about feeling welcomed to the area, only 13 months after the store was vandalized.

“Sometimes people come by and do not know it is a store and a restaurant,” Al Obaidi said. “… From the front, you see traffic. In back, it is quiet, like a neighborhood.”

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

Andrew Zarro co-owns Little Woodfords coffee shop on Forest Avenue in Portland, and joined William Redding, Teresa Valliere and Jill Finberg, seated from left, on the board of the Friends of Woodfords Corner. “Woodfords is an amazing commercial corridor,” he said Jan. 12.

Work at the intersection of Forest and Deering avenues and Woodford street this spring will include building a plaza in front of the Odd Fellows Hall, seen Jan. 11.

David Leith and Justin Van Soest are setting up The Bakery Collective in Portland’s Woodfords Corner after moving the shared space for photographers from Westbrook. “I foresee this as a perfect spot,” Van Soest said Jan. 12.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.