SOUTH PORTLAND — Opposition is forming ahead of an expected City Council vote next week to restore two-way traffic on Ocean Street in Knightville.
An alliance of residents and business owners is insisting the change, scheduled for a council vote Monday, March 7, will serve the interests of only a small group of property owners and set a questionable precedent by valuing anecdotal testimony over facts and statistics gathered by the city.
Councilors reached an informal consensus at a Feb. 22 workshop that the one-way block of Ocean Street between D and E streets should return to two-way traffic with parallel parking on both sides of the street. The change from one-way northbound traffic with 15 angled parking spaces would eliminate five parking spaces.
At the workshop, councilors heard testimony from residents who claimed it is difficult and dangerous to back out of the angled parking spaces. They also said travel in Knightville has become confusing since the one-way block was established three years ago, and that the configuration has led to more vehicles speeding down the neighborhood’s “letter” streets, particularly D Street.
Most councilors agreed, and said reversing the decision would be the best option.
“I’m happy to have a do-over, actually,” Councilor Patti Smith, whose District 2 includes Knightville, said. “I totally understand what’s going on in the neighborhood.”
But some Knightville residents aren’t sure that’s true.
Dan Hogan, of E Street, said the one-way block slows traffic and makes the neighborhood safer for drivers and pedestrians. “Returning to two-way traffic would limit businesses,” he said, “if the perception in the minds of the customers is that parking is a hassle.”
Sarah Kirn, who has lived on D Street for 14 years, said at the workshop that although she was intially concerned about traffic on her street, her concerns were “laid to rest (after) the traffic study that was done found that people are not, in general, speeding down D Street.”
“Yes, there is more traffic on D Street,” Kirn said, “but it is not out of line with what you would expect in an area like this, and it certainly doesn’t compare to streets that are similar in Portland.”
After the workshop, some of those who don’t support the switch back to two-way traffic said they were perplexed about why councilors were agreeing with a perception that contradicts data collected last year by traffic engineers and the city Police Department.
“The (business owners) who bring all the people down here are saying they like it the way it is,” Ocean Street property owner Mike Drinan said Tuesday. “I don’t know why no one’s listening to them.”
After the traffic pattern was changed and angled parking was added in 2012, councilors promised they would revisit the decision in a year, and held a public hearing in July 2013.
“About five people spoke, and no issues were raised, hence nothing was changed,” City Manager Jim Gailey said in an email last week.
The Knightville Traffic and Parking Committee was formed in August 2014 under former Assistant City Manager Jon Jennings in response to complaints from residents about a lack of parking and increased traffic.
Opponents of the traffic pattern claimed that not only was there a shortage of parking, but that the one-way block forced more vehicles down D Street and had become a threat to public safety. At the committee’s recommendation last summer, the city hired Sebago Technics to conduct a traffic and parking study, which was completed last August.
Traffic engineers looked at parking and found no shortage existed: only about half of all available parking in the neighborhood – about 350 public spaces and 870 private spaces – were being utilized.
The engineers, led by Steve Sawyer, also conducted a three-day traffic study on the letter streets in June.
During peak traffic hours each day, approximately 120 cars drove down D Street, which is about two cars every minute. While the amount of traffic on D Street was found to be double than the traffic recorded on B and C streets, the difference was still virtually “imperceptible,” Sawyer said Wednesday by phone.
From a traffic engineering perspective, “the numbers (didn’t) raise to a level of concern,” he said.
Sawyer said he recognizes that many Knightville and D Street residents have the perception that there is a problem, but ultimately it comes down to what the data shows.
“This is one of those tough ones,” he said. “It’s all a perception issue more than it is a reality. … It was a problem that wasn’t really a problem.”
The South Portland Police Department also conducted a speed and traffic survey over a four-day period in September. Officers set up radar boxes on A through E streets, Ocean Street and Waterman Drive, to count the number of vehicles using each street and to chart their speeds.
The results showed the average vehicle speed on each street was below the speed limit. On D Street, where the speed limit is 25 mph, the average speed was 14 mph and at least 85 percent of vehicles were going 18 mph or slower; the maximum speed recorded on D Street during the four-day period was 30 mph.
Officers counted 3,161 vehicles on D Street – the third lowest total on all seven streets studied.
Lt. Frank Clark, who organized the study, said Wednesday that the department conducted the survey on its own to get an idea of how accurately perception aligned with hard data.
“I think the data kind of speaks for itself,” he said.
“This is not unusual,” Mike Drinan said Tuesday afternoon as he looked out his second-floor office window onto a quiet D Street. In the previous 30 minutes, nine vehicles had driven down the mostly residential street – about one every three or so minutes.
Drinan, who has worked from his office overlooking the corner of D and Ocean streets for nearly 30 years, said the current layout of the block “just seems so incredibly manageable. I’ve just never understood the magnitude of the complaint.”
Drinan is one of more than 20 business owners who have signed a petition urging councilors not to return Ocean Street to two-way traffic.
Brian Allen, owner of the Lamp Repair Shop at 105 Ocean St, also signed the petition.
Allen, who moved his 30-year-old business to Knightville 15 years ago, said he feels “under appreciated” by the city “for what we’re trying to do with the neighborhood.”
“I’m sure they all care about the businesses, but the idea was to get businesses down here to make this a vibrant neighborhood,” Allen said Wednesday. “Now that we’ve started doing that, and it has taken a long time, (a) big complaint” is that there’s too much traffic, he said.
Reducing the number of parking spaces will have a direct impact on the nine “stop-and-go businesses” along Ocean Street, Allen said. For his business, people often load and unload heavy fixtures and chandeliers, and having conveniently located and accessible parking is key, he said.
“I depend on the few, rarely available spaces in front of my shop,” Allen said in an email. “Why should the city be encouraged to take many of them away?”
“We’ve put a lot of effort into reviving the neighborhood, and now it sounds like people don’t really want us growing,” Allen added in a phone call. “They don’t like the traffic that comes with the vibrancy.”
Bill Dunnigan, co-owner of Cia Cafe at 72 Ocean St., said the city wanted more businesses to move into Knightville, but now many of those business owners feel they are being punished for being successful. “Being business friendly is definitely not what they’re doing down here. It’s the opposite,” Dunnigan said Thursday morning.
He added that a coalition of Knightville residents and business owners is forming to oppose the perception that the neighborhood wants the city to change Ocean Street.
Alan Cardinal, owner of Legion Square Market at 101 Ocean St., who also signed the business owers’ petition, said Tuesday that he feels city officials and an outspoken minority of neighborhood residents are dismissing the needs of business owners.
“We’re not dismissing the perception side, we’re saying you can’t dismiss the data,” Cardinal said.
The perception that there are problems “can’t be overshadowing the blend of information,” he continued. “That’s all that’s being asked here. It’s not that we have the answer or they have the answer, it’s that we need an answer that is diverse, that has some tenets in it that enhance the area, not detract from it.”
Cardinal also said he will consider moving his nearly 80-year-old business if the council votes to change the Ocean Street traffic pattern and reduce parking. His grocery store depends on easy access, he said, especially with alternatives like Hannaford and Shaw’s nearby.
“To have a business fail because of my failings is one thing,” Cardinal said. “To have it fail because a city is imposing things on it that don’t need to be done is a whole other thing.”
Mike Drinan looks out his office window above the corner of Ocean and D streets in South Portland. Drinan is one of more than 20 Knightville business owners who signed a petition asking the City Council not to eliminate one-way traffic and angled parking on Ocean Street.