2016-10-07 / Front Page

Saco pop-up plaza put on hold for now

By LIZ GOTTHELF
Staff Writer

SACO — A proposal to close Pepperell Square to vehicular traffic for a week and add a pop-up plaza has drawn opposition from area merchants, and has been postponed to spring so that it can be further discussed.

City Administrator Kevin Sutherland requested that the Traffic Safety Committee discuss at its Sept. 22 meeting a proposal to close down traffic in the square – except for early-morning deliveries – during the third week in October, the week before the annual downtown Pumpkin Harvest Festival.

During that week, a temporary “pop-up plaza” – a public gathering place with outdoor seating – would be installed in the square.

The item was tabled because of pushback from local merchants, and no action took place, said Sutherland.

He said if the proposal is eventually approved, it won’t happen until spring, and prior to implementation, it would be discussed with local business owners and reviewed by the Planning Board.

A meeting will be held from 3-5 p.m. Thursday at City Hall to discuss concerns regarding the proposal and possible solutions. Sutherland will also meet with business owners on Oct. 20.

Pepperell Square is an area of downtown off Main Street via Front Street.

The idea to close traffic in the square was prompted, said Sutherland, by traffic studies conducted over the summer. One idea to address traffic congestion downtown, which was proposed by a traffic engineer hired by the city, was a full or partial closing of traffic in Pepperell Square, said Sutherland.

Sutherland said the studies show that 60 percent of traffic that uses the intersection at Front and Main Street are cutting through from Beach Street.

The proposal would temporarily eliminate traffic flow onto Main Street from Pepperell Square. This would encourage traffic to continue down Beach Street and turn onto Main Street at the intersection of Beach and Main, extend the cycle for the light, and facilitate a protected turn on to Main Street at that intersection.

Sutherland said over the course of the week, traffic was to be studied to see how it was impacted by the temporary change.

“This would be no different if we had to close the square to major underground utility work,” said Sutherland.

The suggested pop-up plaza was a way to utilize the space during the temporary closing and attract people into the area, said Sutherland, who said he’s seen such plazas successfully implemented in other areas.

But merchants said they’re weren’t given enough notice.

“I don’t think the process was very fair to the stakeholders in the square,” said Johanna Hoffman, manager of Saco Frame Shop in Pepperell Square.

Hoffman said the first time she heard about the proposal was via an email a few days before the Sept. 22 meeting, and that some members of the Pepperell Square business community didn’t hear about the proposal until after the meeting.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s not enough notice for something that’s going to affect our livelihood,” she said.

Hoffman said if the proposal goes through, it could be detrimental to the businesses in the square, as it would reduce parking and make it difficult to get deliveries, which can’t always be scheduled for morning hours.

“I don’t know where they’re getting this rainbow-and-sunshine attitude,” she said.

Rapid Ray’s, a takeout restaurant on the corner of Main Street and Front Street, posted on Facebook that the closing of Pepperell Square would negatively impact businesses and take away customer parking. The post urged others to go to Thursday’s meeting.

Sutherland, in a recent letter to the downtown business community, said it was clear from discussion at the Sept. 22 meeting that there needed to be better communication regarding the proposal. “I apologize and ask for your understanding,” he wrote.

Sutherland said in a phone call Thursday there are some downtown business owners who are very upset about the proposal, and have been very vocal about it. He said it shows people are engaged, and he hopes for some good discussion.

— Staff Writer Liz Gotthelf can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 325 or egotthelf@journaltribune.com.

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