Portland hopes to make parkway pedestrian friendly for Thompson's Point

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PORTLAND — The city is working on a plan to make the Fore River Parkway more pedestrian friendly.

The problem, according to one Planning Board member, is the parkway was designed to move traffic, not people.

The plan came to light during a recent site walk at Thompson’s Point, where developers are seeking approval for a $100 million complex with a concert hall, convention center, hotel and offices.

The so-called Forefront project will also be the new home of the Maine Red Claws basketball team.

City planners support the project, but remain concerned about traffic, parking and pedestrian accessibility.

Planning Board member David Silk said people walking to the property from the west side near Interstate 295 will probably not follow existing pedestrian routes.

Developers are hoping walkers and bikers will access the Forefront one of two ways: by talking Frederick Street to a sidewalk on the Fore River Parkway east of I-295, or by walking along Congress Street to Sewall Street, where developers are planning sidewalk improvements.

But standing at the intersection of the Thompson’s Point Connector and the Fore River Parkway, Silk said he was concerned many people would park off-site near the West School and take the most direct route to the site, which is across a long grassy area near the I-295 Exit 5 off-ramp.

Shortly after Silk expressed that concern, a pedestrian left a vehicle and dashed across the intersection, while a runner coming from Congress Street wove his way through five lanes of traffic, jogged along the side of the traffic lane and entered the Thompson’s Point Connector Road.

Planning Board member Michael Patterson, however, said he would not support any effort to create path around or through the grassy area, noting the parkway was built to move cars not people.

Planner William Needelman said the city was already looking for areas for a sidewalk that would give pedestrians a more direct route to the site.

“It’s the missing link,” Needelman said. “The problem is where to put it.”

Planner Molly Casto said city has nearly $120,000 for the bike-pedestrian path, including more than $30,000 of city funds. The path linking Thompson’s Point Connector Road to Congress Street could be on either side of the Fore River Parkway, she said.

Casto said a feasibility study will occur in the fall with design work taking place over the winter or spring. The path could be built next year, she said.

Patterson said it is “aggravating” that the city is trying to retrofit the parkway, saying “ultimately we can’t control everything.” But Silk said the board must ensure pedestrian safety.

Needelman said any pedestrian access would also include a crosswalk and crossing signals.

Tom Gorrill, the developer’s traffic engineers, said traffic signal upgrades at the intersection will include a queue detector to prevent traffic from backing up on the I-295 off-ramp.

The firm previously said the development could result in – at most – an additional 570 morning peak hour trips into the property and 955 trips out in the evening peak. Those estimates assume more than three people per vehicle. 

During public comment after the site walk, two neighborhood residents said they are concerned about the traffic and pedestrian issues that may accompany the development.

Boulton Street resident Jackie Thompson said current traffic volumes on Congress Street make it difficult for pedestrians to get from one side to the other, especially at night. She also expressed concern about the plan to build a sidewalk to allow pedestrians on enter the site from the parkway. 

“I think that’s crazy,” she said. “There’s got to be a better way to get the public down there.”

Powsland Street resident Scott Rheault said he’s concerned people attending concerts, games and functions at Thompson’s Point will park in the neighborhood and leave their cars for days at a time. That is currently an issue with train riders, he said.

Rheault also said narrowing Sewall Street by adding a sidewalk will cause congestion. People currently park on both sides of the road, even though no parking is allowed there, he said.

“I just know it’s miserable now,” he said. “I can’t imagine it’s going to get any better.”

Board member Carole Morrissette said she had a minor concern that a recent zone change approved by the board would allow the access road around the point to be built too close the water’s edge.

But Morrissette encouraged developers to push the envelop when it comes to designing the buildings.

“This is a huge opportunity to make a big architectural statement,” said Morrissette, noting the gateway nature of the site. “And I encourage you to do it.”

Patterson and Silk also suggested the developers reconsider their plan to put 20 to 30 parking spaces near the water at the tip of the point.

Silk said the next step for the board would be to review a site plan in workshop, so members can address specific standards. Then, the project could be forwarded to public hearing.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings