Portland council pushes public art via Woodfords Corner lights

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PORTLAND — A cluster of street lamps in Woodfords Corner has been the center of attention as city officials discussed a controversial design plan.

On Monday, city councilors approved using $25,000 in surplus Public Art Committee funds to hire local artist Aaron Stephan and install lamps of his design in front of the Oddfellows Hall at Forest Avenue and Woodford Street.

The 6-3 vote, with Councilors Jill Duson, Nick Mavodones Jr. and Ed Suslovic opposed, came after an hour of deliberations. Mavodones and Councilor David Brenerman changed their opinions during the debate.

“I think public art is important; I really don’t think the council should be determining what public art is,” Mavodones said.

The lights are a small element of the $2.6 million project to improve traffic flow and pedestrian access on the stretch of Forest Avenue from Revere Street to beyond the railroad crossing near Concord Street.

“Street light clusters were always a part of the plans,” city Urban Designer Caitlin Cameron said June 1 at a public meeting at Woodfords Congregational Church.

At that meeting, she and Public Art Committee Chairwoman Lin Lisberger outlined the proposal that was voted on Monday by councilors.

Plans call for creating a small plaza in front of the Oddfellows Hall at Forest Avenue and Woodford Street by eliminating a right turn “slip lane.” Within that plaza would be new street lamps to help give the area a characteristic feel.

“We don’t want to mimic the Old Port; we recognize Forest Avenue is its own distinctive corridor,” Cameron said.

What is new about the plan is a collaboration with the Portland Public Art Committee, which has funds left over from the 2014 Bernard Langlais sculpture installations. The surplus funds will allow the committee to commission Stephan without putting the project in the annual plan it presents to councilors each January.

Lisberger said the collaboration would help the committee “push public art off the peninsula. This was one of our first opportunities to do it.”

The timing can also be arranged so installation would occur in summer 2017, when the MDOT contractor is at work. Lisberger estimated it could take as long as three years to otherwise add art to the proposed plaza.

Cameron assured the audience at the church that conceptual lamp photos do not represent a final design, and that Stephan will work with the public when designing the street lamps.

Cameron said the public will have opportunities to comment on the design during Public Art Committee meetings, anticipated neighborhood meetings and online at the city website.

“It is not typical for us to have such a completely defined idea and then hire an artist later,” she said.

Public comment was limited at the council meeting, although Norwood Street resident Nancy Hearne worried about the consequences of the council’s action.

“I’m afraid we are going to go forward and we are only stuck on this artist. Is it really money-saving if we take it back out and have to put in something else?” she asked.

At the June 1 meeting, Hearne’s husband, Steve Lovejoy, expressed his concern about the proposed art.

“I’d hate to see (the lights) become a distraction while we still have traffic problems in the intersection,” he said.

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

A new plaza is planned in front of the Oddfellows Hall on Forest Avenue in Portland, seen June 1, and could incorporate street lights that are also public art.

Portland Urban Designer Caitlyn Cameron reviews plans to create a plaza at Woodford Street and Forest Avenue during a June 1 meeting at Woodfords Congregational Church.

A new plaza would be created at Forest Avenue and Woodford Street by eliminating a right turn lane and expanding the sidewalks.

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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.