The Bangor City Council narrowly, but rightly, has advanced a plan this week that will keep the Community Connector bus hub in Pickering Square, while also setting the stage for a more usable public space in the heart of the city.
This promising project will take some time — at least 56 weeks, according to an estimate from city staff — to come to fruition. And while there is reason for optimism about the long-term development of a more welcoming space that includes a small office building and public restrooms, there is another situation in the square that cannot wait a year for action.
The Pickering Square parking garage previously had an indoor bus terminal that provided shelter and a restroom for riders as they wait, but that space was removed as part of the recent construction that moved the garage entrance. The city added temporary structures and restrooms in the center of the square to replace that space in the short term, but those structures simply aren’t providing enough shelter from the winter elements.
“In moving forward in this plan, the city took out the heated waiting room with bathrooms. It’s now gone,” bus rider Karen Marysdaughter told the council during a Jan. 13 workshop. “I don’t know how many of you have hung out in Pickering Square since the weather has gotten cold, but we now have uninsulated shelters that are open at the bottom, they’re not big enough to hold many people, the bathrooms are closed down, the square is only plowed in certain places, its windy, it’s cold, often wet.”
Members of the council and city staff, like members of the public, appear to recognize the need to address the lack of a proper warming shelter where riders can wait safely for the buses.
“The shelter, the heat in Pickering Square, I think we should try to rectify immediately — it’s dangerous, it’s disrespectful, it’s borderline inhumane to not have heat and shelter in Pickering Square during the winter months,” Councilor Ben Sprague said at the Jan. 13 workshop.
We disagreed with Sprague and the three other councilors who on Monday voted against the new plan for Pickering Square and the buses. But we completely agree with his assessment of the shelter situation, which is simply unacceptable.
How to address it may not be so simple, but it’s important that the city continues to explore ways to do so.
In an interview with the BDN, Assistant City Manager Rich Cromwell acknowledged that the warming structures have not worked as well as the city hoped, but outlined ways that staff is trying to improve them — such as adding a second heating unit in the larger one, and exploring the possibility of better insulating them by adding skirting around the currently exposed lower areas.
It’s encouraging to hear Cromwell describe this issue as “top of mind.” It needs to stay there.
As Darcy Cooke, an organizer with the economic and social justice group Food AND Medicine, told the BDN, the winter weather means it is “at the point now where it’s dangerous” for bus riders, particularly the elderly, to be waiting for buses in the square.
Cooke discussed the possibility of opening up the existing office in the parking garage for bus riders to wait. That city certainly should explore using existing space within the garage to provide shelter — and potentially do so at minimal cost to taxpayers. There may not be a perfect solution in the short term, but there should be no doubt that the status quo cannot last through another winter.
“My view is that we really need to improve the temporary facilities in Pickering Square especially in the winter and I have faith that they are working on it,” Sprague said about city staff in an email this week.
Council Chairperson Claire Davitt told the BDN in an email that she has been in touch with city staff for weeks on this subject, and that staff are “working on figuring out viable options because it’s clearly an issue that we need to address.”
“I’m really excited about moving forward with the hub in Pickering but we obviously have to do something for the riders before then,” added Davitt, one of the five councilors who voted to move forward with the new plan for the square.
There is good reason to be excited about what lies in store for Pickering Square. As plans proceed, the need for a more immediate warming shelter solution cannot get lost in the mix. We’re glad to see members of the council and city staff recognize this issue, and hope there will continue to be discussion and outside the box thinking to make sure that bus riders aren’t left out in the cold.