Signs on Main Street direct pedestrians to the pop-up plaza on Oak Street. Credit: Lauren Abbate | BDN

The BDN is making the most crucial coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in Maine free for all readers. Click here for all coronavirus stories. You can join others committed to safeguarding this vital public service by purchasing a subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.

ROCKLAND, Maine ― After walking back a sweeping plan to turn Main Street into a pedestrian plaza this summer, city officials here are finding there’s no silver bullet when it comes to reclaiming outdoor space to help commerce thrive under social-distancing guidelines during the pandemic.

Instead of entirely closing Main Street ― which doubles as Route 1 ― the city is working with the Maine Department of Transportation to convert it into a one-lane road. It will allow for the expansion of sidewalk space where businesses can space out their operations. Parking spots in front of downtown businesses also are being cordoned off so restaurants can erect tables for outdoor dining. Smaller side streets are being closed entirely to traffic.

“We’re trying to really work together [with downtown stakeholders.] It’s basically been many meetings over Zoom trying to figure out what will work and what won’t work,” City Manager Tom Luttrel said. “We just want to make sure that our downtown businesses, or any businesses in Rockland, stay afloat. We don’t want to see all of our restaurants boarded up because their staff doesn’t feel safe serving inside, or they can only do every other table.”

As the state’s economy reopens, businesses must adhere to strict distancing and capacity requirements aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. Cities and towns across Maine are implementing similar initiatives aimed at providing restaurants and retailers with greater access to public outdoor spaces to serve more customers.

Rockland was one of the first cities in Maine to announce a bold plan that would close its Main Street to traffic for the entire summer.

However, that idea fell flat on two trial weekends in June, with only a few restaurants setting up outdoor dining areas on the sidewalks and beyond while the street was shut down. Additionally, the idea to close the street for the entire summer worried business owners who rely on getting deliveries on busy Route 1.

The new street mural is an extension of an existing wall mural that was painted in 2015. Credit: Lauren Abbate | BDN

“While the full Main Street closure provided more space, the logistics made it hard to sustain long term,” said David Gogel, executive director of Rockland Main Street Inc., a nonprofit with a mission of bolstering the downtown area.

Even though the plan didn’t pan out, Gogel applauded the city for its “rapid responsive redesign” of Main Street.

“The idea is that this will be an iterative process and the design will be edited based on feedback from the community,” Gogel said.

As the Main Street closure plan fizzled, city councilors began authorizing the closure of smaller one-way side streets, including the partial closures of Orient, Oak, Limerock and Winter streets.

Adjacent businesses will be able to utilize those streets and the city is working to create public spaces on Winter and Oak streets. Oak Street also has been turned into a public “color corridor” after a local muralist organized a street mural project earlier this summer.

The next step for the city is getting the green light from Maine DOT for Main Street to be reduced from two-lane traffic to one through October. Luttrell anticipates that will happen next week, and then public works crews can start setting up concrete barriers on Main Street.

This plan would greatly reduce the amount of parking on Main Street. However, Rockland has numerous municipal parking lots on adjacent streets.

“It will be a work in progress,” Luttrell said.

Since this new plan will still allow for vehicles to access Main Street, Gogel said it has the potential to be more inclusive and therefore successful.

“As we have seen, outdoor dining and social distancing have become essential,” Gogel said. “By integrating vehicles, pedestrians, outdoor dining, and parking, we hope to have a solution that will work for the whole community.”