Knightville construction puts squeeze on South Portland neighborhood

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SOUTH PORTLAND — Residents and business owners are feeling the crunch with a sewer, water and utility overhaul in Knightville is in full swing.

The $2.9 million project began in April. It hit the densely packed section of Ocean Street from E Street to D Street (the “Smaha’s block”) earlier this month.

Construction workers have dug trenches in the sidewalks and along side streets for sewer separation. Stretches of sidewalk have been ripped up, and others are closed altogether. Chain-link fences line a portion of the sidewalk nearest to the Ocean Street traffic circle.

Perhaps most importantly, parking spots disappear each day because of new digging or parking for large equipment. 

“Last time I drove down there, I don’t think there were any parking spaces,” said Bob O’Brien of the Waterfront Market Association. “There may been one or two, but not many.”

“They’re trying to be as accommodating as they can, but when you’re nuking the whole street and the whole sidewalk, it’s hard to keep everything going smoothly,” he said.

The work may be an inconvenience for shoppers and business owners, but it’s not keeping people from feeling upbeat.

Tom Smaha, owner of Smaha’s Legion Square Market, 101 Ocean St., said the construction is definitely hurting his business. But he also said it could be much worse.

“During the weekdays, we’re probably down 10 or 15 percent,” he said. “Thank goodness (construction workers) don’t work weekends. That’s our busiest time.”

Smaha said the city and the construction company, Shaw Brothers Construction of Gorham, are doing the best they can to ensure his and other businesses always have at least some parking available, although the spots rotate like a bad game of musical chairs: a spot available today may be gone tomorrow.

But Smaha said it will all be worth it in the end. The city will cap off the infrastructure project with a street beautification work.

“We’re really looking forward to the wider sidewalks, the new lighting and the new street,” he said. “But the end result can’t come soon enough.”

Smaha said his business is down because parking is vital for a grocery store. Not many of his customers are from Knightville, he said. Most drive from other parts of the city, or from Portland or Cape Elizabeth.

Nearby at Verbena cafe, which relies much more on foot traffic, business has, surprisingly, been good.

“We’ve had a lot of people who go through the effort to come here no matter what, to support us,” said Shoshanna Freedman, a barista at the 103 Ocean St. coffee shop. “Even though a lot of times, no one can park out front.”

Freedman said many people will park behind the store and walk through the Lamp Repair Shop next door to get to the cafe. Micah Smith, who lives on Ocean Street, just south of the Legion Square traffic circle, said the neighborhood is banding together to support the local businesses, to make sure they survive the construction.

“”It’s definitely a concerted effort,” he said.

Smith said the construction has made his morning routine – breakfast at Verbena – a little more difficult. But a less convenient cup of coffee is the least of his concerns.

“The biggest thing is that the entire neighborhood is just so dusty and dirty,” he said. “I walk down the street with my dogs, and we just start choking. That’s difficult, especially for the older people in the neighborhood.”

Smith, and other residents and business owners, receive a weekly update about the construction project from Brad Weeks, the city engineer overseeing the project. Weeks tells them what’s scheduled for the next week, and where. That email has helped residents and businesses prepare.

Patrick Cloutier, director of the city’s Department of Water Resource Protection, said the communication is vital.

“We aim to keep people informed about our progress,” he said. “It changes from week to week.”

Work in Knightville is expected to wrap up in November. The city is still working to resolve concerns raised by business owners about its plan to remove the angled, drive-in parking on the Smaha’s block and replace it with parallel parking.

An alternative plan, to keep the drive-in parking and reduce Ocean Street to one lane of one-way traffic, gained some support over the winter, but the City Council delayed a final decision. 

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.