Oak Street in Rockland has been closed for the last year, allowing the public and businesses to sprawl and gather. Credit: Lauren Abbate / BDN

When the pandemic made indoor dining undesirable, many Maine communities sprang into action to allow restaurants to sprawl onto sidewalks, streets and parking spaces. Now, communities are looking to keep the changes.

Cities like Portland, Rockland and Bangor found that businesses and the public largely enjoyed the increased outdoor dining options, even as it reduced parking in some areas.

“I think [with] the pandemic, you had to think creatively about all of these things, like how to have the public participate in outdoor events safely, or outdoor dining, and I think it made everybody realize that ‘Wow, this is a great way to experience our community,’” said Anne Ball, program director of the Maine Downtown Center.

Finding ways to offer more usable and enjoyable outdoor space has long been a goal for many Maine communities, according to Ball. But for many the pandemic rushed that goal into a reality to protect public health and their local economies.

Bangor already had ample public space for restaurants to use for outdoor dining, according to Tanya Emery, the city’s community and economic development director, but there was a need to help businesses that didn’t abut wide sidewalks or plazas.

The city allowed businesses to use parking spaces to create temporary dining areas, called parklets. Now, Bangor is considering keeping this option long-term, though the city council still needs to give final approval.

“I think the only thing the pandemic did was … sort of force us to think about, were there any options that we hadn’t considered, which we had not considered parking spaces,” Emery said. “The pandemic really kind of gave us the opportunity to test it, which is awesome.”

Portland had already allowed parklets prior to the pandemic. But since they were first made available in 2018, only a single business had applied for one. The pandemic changed that — 60 businesses applied for parklet permits in 2020 alone.

Now, that city has loosened some of the criteria businesses had to meet to be eligible for parklets and also removed a five-parklet cap associated with the 2018 ordinance through a program called “Open Air Portland,” which was passed in September.

Going forward the city’s outdoor dining season will be limited to between April and November and any outdoor space used by businesses must not cause them to exceed their buildings’ occupancy limit, according to Zachary Lenhert, Licensing and Housing Safety Manager for the city of Portland.

Portland has also committed to closing portions of three streets in the Old Port to allow for more pedestrian space and outdoor dining from April to November.

For the coastal city of Rockland, the desire for outdoor dining space is being handled with more permanent changes. A sidewalk extension project that will bump out two sections of sidewalk along Main Street to allow for outdoor dining space during the warmer months is being completed this spring. The project will result in the loss of about two and a half parking spaces as well as part of a loading zone, but will not change the width of the roadway.

The city will also continue to offer an option of using parking spaces for outdoor dining areas which the city has allowed throughout the pandemic, Rockland City Manager Tom Luttrell said.

“With how bad the pandemic was and still is, the only positive that came out of it was people and the city of Rockland looking at outdoor space and how to utilize that space for outdoor activity. We wouldn’t be where we are today with outdoor dining unless the pandemic did hit and then that showed everybody, residents, staff and council here, that it does work and we can do it in the city of Rockland,” Luttrell said.

Still, despite the benefits of outdoor dining, there have been concerns and some opposition to the changes.

In Bar Harbor, the pandemic-created parklet program over the last two summers resulted in the loss of about $123,000 each year in parking revenue, according to town manager Kevin Sutherland. While businesses were paying for use of the parking spaces, it only generated about $21,000 over the last two years, about $2,000 of which the town is still trying to collect.

Additionally, the parklets created safety issues on Bar Harbor’s tight streets, Sutherland said, with cars hitting the jersey barriers that surrounded the parklet dining areas on several occasions. This resulted in the town securing the barriers to the road with rebar, which can cause long-term road damage, according to Sutherland.

“From an administrative point of view it is a very expensive program and I don’t think the staff will support it, but if it’s a council directive, that’s another thing,” Sutherland said.

Some Bar Harbor businesses would like to see the parklet program return. The town council will likely discuss the topic at its meeting next month.

While Sutherland said he is in favor of more outdoor space, he’s unsure if the pandemic-inspired parklet program is the right solution for Bar Harbor.

It took Rockland a few iterations to get an outdoor dining plan that worked for the community. During the first summer of the pandemic, the city initially tried a temporary shutdown of Main Street, before scaling back to just shutting down one lane of the one-way street. But the rollout of these closures caused confusion. 

Last summer, both lanes of traffic were open, but the jersey barriers that surrounded parklets gave Main Street a construction zone look. With widened sidewalks, those barriers won’t be needed. 

Bangor and Rockland officials said they didn’t receive complaints about losing parking spaces to parklets. However, Luttrell said, a parking lot on Oak Street used for dining space did generate some complaints. The city is working to determine how that lot will be used this summer.

Emery and Luttrell said continued use of parklets for outdoor dining in their cities is not expected to significantly reduce the amount of parking in their downtowns.