Food fight: Cottage Road changes leave some South Portland residents with a bad taste
SOUTH PORTLAND — The arrival of several restaurants along Cottage Road has left a less-than-savory taste in the mouths of some neighborhood residents who are worried about traffic, parking, and an increase in alcohol sales.
"This is the greater Portland area coming into South Portland," Elsmere Avenue resident Pamela Jordan said last week about congestion created by people dining at restaurants including Elsmere BBQ and Wood Grill, across the street from her home.
Jordan, and her neighbors Joe Mokry and Melissa Denick, first spoke about the problems at the Jan. 6 City Council meeting, when Portland Players was granted a license to serve wine at the Cottage Road theater.
Mokry last week said their comments were directed less at the theater than they were a chance to vent in general about increased traffic and liquor sales in the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood.
"Our presentations were off the cuff, but there hadn't been an opportunity for the neighbors to speak directly to the council over these problems. I think there was a little bit of pent up frustration,” he said.
But Elsmere BBQ, opened last August by Adam Powers and Jeremy Rush, was specifically mentioned by Mokry and Jordan because they believe its success has taken a toll on their quality of life.
"It is great in hard times to see a business doing well, but the measure is not just how much money they make," Mokry said.
Before opening last year, Rush and Powers said they looked forward to being a restaurant that neighborhood patrons could walk to. They introduced themselves by serving food at WillardFest in July.
"We didn't know we were going to be as busy as we were," Rush said Tuesday. "It seems like it is a real up-and-coming area. We want to be community driven."
Good food has led to good press, and better business. Jordan, Mokry and neighbor Jennifer Roberts said weekends and sometimes on weeknights it is difficult to find parking around the Cottage Road-Elsmere Avenue intersection.
Roberts also said smoke from the restaurant had made breathing so difficult for her that she had to close her windows throughout the fall. She also said her driveway has been blocked by vehicles parked by restaurant customers.
Rush and Powers have responded to neighbors' complaints by increasing the grill's smokestack height and installing a fan to force smoke higher into the air. A vibrant, orange sign directing customers to a small parking lot behind the restaurant has been painted on the Elsmere Avenue side of the building.
Elsmere BBQ sits next to the Laundercenter and Drillen's Hardware, two businesses already scrapping for adequate parking. Laundry center owner Alex Anastahoff said Tuesday there were some initial problems with customers parking in space he shared with Drillen.
Drillen installed signs reminding customers parking is only for the store and laundry center, but he and Anastahoff also complimented Powers and Rush for working with the community. They said the restaurant's success benefits the neighborhood as a whole.
"They seemed to address every problem as well as they could," Drillen said. "As far as I am concerned, I am a thumbs up for them."
Anastahoff said Powers and Rush also cleaned up a graffitti-ridden, unoccupied building when they moved in.
"These guys have been great as neighbors, everything you could ask for," Anastahoff said.
Mokry and Jordan said they are also frustrated with city government, feeling left out of the process that granted liquor licenses to several new restaurants, and affected by policies like parking requirements that may not fully account for how people drive to neighborhood restaurants and theater productions.
There are now more than half a dozen restaurants, plus four variety stores or prepared-food providers, on Cottage Road between Broadway and the Cape Elizabeth border; four of them opened in the last year. All but one – the long-standing South Portland House of Pizza – sell beer, wine and/or liquor.
“We'd like to see the city consider guidelines or limits on (liquor) licenses,” Mokry said.
License applications are open to public comment at City Council meetings and a hearing notice is placed in newspapers, but Roberts, Jordan and Mokry said they were still unaware when Elsmere's license was approved last June.
Jordan also said delivery traffic during the day has increased, and trucks are now using side streets to turn around.
"I think we have some high-risk potential public safety issues," she said.
Rush empathized with Jordan on traffic issues.
"I understand what people are saying, just trying to cross the road is brutal," the restaurant owner said. "But it was like that before we even opened."
Mayor Jerry Jalbert said Wednesday said the council and city staff will be looking at the Meetinghouse Hill neighborhood issues.
“We've got to figure out the traffic flow issues and the parking, we haven't done anything with Cottage Road for a long time," Jalbert said. Like the stretch of Broadway running from Southern Maine Community College to Cottage Road, the city may need to reconfigure travel lanes, he said.
Jalbert also said a question for the future will be whether the city should start establishing parking areas.
Jalbert said development in the mixed-use neighborhood may signal need for a change in how South Portland views itself.
"At what point are you becoming a big city instead of a small city?," he said.