Portland plans to close some Old Port streets to vehicle traffic again this summer, but Exchange Street will remain open.

The barricades last year allowed some businesses to expand outdoor seating or shopping into the empty street, so customers could avoid coming indoors and practice social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some businesses, especially restaurants, took advantage of that option. Others, particularly retailers, said their foot traffic dropped. The city reopened the streets when the temperatures dropped in November but allowed outdoor dining to continue.

“There’s really no consensus when it comes to how we can best support small business in Portland,” Dena Libner, the city’s chief of staff, told a City Council committee Tuesday. “We believe that a variation of the program that existed last summer … currently is the best way to fairly and positively impact as many small businesses as possible.”

The city is currently planning to close parts of Dana, Milk and Wharf streets on April 1, although wintry weather could delay that date. It is also expecting to shut down one direction of traffic on the easternmost block of Middle Street. Exchange Street is the only one that will not close for a second summer.

The closures will again last until the colder weather arrives, but businesses will still be allowed to operate outdoors on sidewalks and other public property next winter.

The City Council last year authorized City Manager Jon Jennings to close streets as part of a COVID-19 emergency proclamation, so no vote is needed to put a similar plan in place this year.

City officials first disclosed their plans for this year at a remote Housing and Economic Development Committee meeting Tuesday evening. Libner shared the results of limited surveys about outdoor dining and retail options, and she said the feedback on Exchange Street was split “down the middle.” Some called the closure “devastating,” she said, and others considered it “a silver bullet.”

“The consternation it caused on Exchange Street and the negative feedback we received from businesses is guiding us in the direction of not reintroducing a closure to traffic or parking,” Libner said.

Jennings agreed that it would be “problematic” to close Exchange Street again, and he said the city is also willing to consider street closures and parklets in other areas of Portland. He said he would be sharing information about those options with businesses as soon as this week so they could plan ahead. He and Libner did not speak in detail about the fees for outdoor operations, but those costs were reduced during the pandemic.

“What we’re trying to do is balance the needs of several businesses, particularly restaurants, against the needs of direct parking for many of the shops and other businesses,” he said.

Councilors at the meeting did not object to that plan. They asked questions about traffic flow and discussed options to make the concrete barriers that block cars from turning onto those streets more aesthetically pleasing.

“The reality is the best way to support small businesses today might be very different by the middle of March,” Councilor Andrew Zarro, who owns Little Woodfords coffee shop, said.

The city issued 141 permits for outdoor dining and 17 for sidewalk sales last summer, records show. Fourteen restaurants and nine merchants had Exchange Street addresses, although it was not clear from the list how extensively each business set up outside.

On Exchange Street, the news was met with mixed reviews.

Joshua Miranda, who owns Blyth & Burrows, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision. But he said his outdoor seating arrangement “saved our summer.” He also built a platform for tables on Dana Street for Via Vecchia, which he also owns.

“For us to open outside this summer really saved us,” Miranda said. “There’s still a lot of people who aren’t comfortable eating inside just yet, and we were able to capitalize on the parklet.”

Dana Heycock and Sal Scaglione, owners of Abacus Gallery, welcomed the decision. They said their Portland store suffered more than their other locations last year specifically because of the street closure. The concrete barriers discouraged pedestrians from coming down the street, they said, and the arrangement was inconvenient for delivery drivers, people trying to park and customers who are elderly or have disabilities.

“I think it had a negative effect” on the Old Port, Scaglione said.

“One of the goals of closing the street last summer was to create a pedestrian way and be a boost for businesses, but it didn’t pan out that way at all,” Heycock added.

Emily Cole of D. Cole Jewelers said her family “sees both sides.”

“Having Exchange open for the summer allows traffic to flow, maintains the level of parking and allows curbside pickup to continue,” she wrote in an email. “However, having Exchange closed also really helped our neighboring restaurants with their outdoor seating and also provided a really amazing atmosphere for shopping. We fully support whatever is best for our neighboring businesses as we are all stronger together.”


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