PORTLAND, Maine — A controversial change to make historic Exchange Street in the Old Port pedestrian-only during the pandemic will not be extended this year.
Instead, officials will encourage businesses in the area to apply for “parklets” — converted public parking spaces — where they can offer outdoor services during the warmer months of the pandemic.
The city blocked off Exchange Street, an historic commercial artery in the heart of the Old Port, to all but foot traffic last year as it juggled business needs against pandemic precautions.
But several shops expressed “consternation” with that move, saying that lack of traffic affected sales. One shop owner cited it as the reason he closed his Old Port business of 51 years.
Officials are now looking for ways to extend outdoor services to retail businesses beyond the food and hospitality industry in the warmer months.
Like last year, they have recommended fully closing Dana, Milk and Wharf streets and partly closing Middle Street. City Manager Jon Jennings recommended that Old Port streets be barricaded to traffic beginning April 1 and potentially last a full year, giving businesses that apply for parklets a full year to operate them. Some parklet applications, like those on cobblestoned Fore Street, might not be considered safe to operate in the winter.
More than 140 businesses were permitted to operate outdoors last year, with more than a dozen restaurants serving customers in parklets by late June.
Jennings said that the city would entertain proposals for parklets or additional streets closed to vehicle traffic elsewhere in the city.
Jennings wanted to “balance the needs of local businesses like restaurants against the needs for direct parking for many of the shops and other businesses, particularly on Exchange Street,” he said in a Housing and Economic Development meeting Tuesday. The city manager is authorized to temporarily close certain streets in a declared emergency.
The loss of parking meter revenue in blocked-off streets was also a factor, Jennings said.
Councilor Tae Chong suggested adding public art or an outdoor venue in the street closure areas.
“The way I see it, street closures are almost like a destination,” Chong said. “It’s not just about the shops and restaurants, there could be other things that people want to see.”
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the number of Portland businesses permitted to operate outdoors in 2020.