A few weeks ago, on one of those crisp fall days when a cruise ship was in town and the sidewalks in the Old Port were packed, I was walking down Middle Street near Canal Plaza when a group of tourists in front of me suddenly stopped, and one of them said, "Well, I guess that's the end of the shopping area. Let's turn around."
Of course, they weren't at the "end" of downtown. The local shops and restaurants of the Monument Square and Free Street area were just a block ahead of them, and the galleries of the Arts District were just beyond that.
But the intersection of Temple and Spring Street in front of the Nickelodeon Theater raises its middle finger to foot traffic. It sends a clear visual message to tourists to turn around and take their money back towards the cozy cobblestone streets that they just left behind.
The city is taking steps to make these two streets, along with Free Street, more hospitable to foot traffic and economic development. Last week, a relatively low-budget city planning effort unveiled its proposals for rebuilding the length of Spring Street downtown, between the West End and the Old Port.
The plan's biggest feature is in narrowing Spring Street to 2 lanes, and getting rid of the median barrier, in order to encourage economic development and reduce the street's long-term maintenance costs to the city.
The plan also addresses the diagonal crossing that everyone makes on the way from Monument Square to Lobsterman Park, in front of the Nickelodeon Theater. To address the pedestrian traffic there — and perhaps entice more Old Port tourists to venture across Temple Street towards Monument Square — the study committee proposes turning the block of Temple Street between Free and Spring/Middle intersection into a "shared space" where cars would be required to slow down to a crawl and yield to pedestrians and bikes.
They also want to reconnect old cross streets like Cotton, Cross, and Oak, and install a contraflow bike lane to let people ride up Free Street, from the Old Port to Congress Square.
Here's an image of the concept as it stands right now (click for a larger version):
As it happens, the Maine DOT has budgeted a few hundred thousand dollars to repave Spring Street in 2015. If the city can agree on a solid plan, the money that Augusta saves by paving two lanes instead of four could be re-budgeted for better sidewalks and crosswalks, and for removing the concrete median barrier. And if the city deeds some of the real estate from the extra-wide street to adjacent landowners, they could generate new property tax revenue that could help pay for additional improvements.
If the City Council signs off on these plans, detailed engineering and design documents would need to be created by 2014 for construction on the new street to happen in summer 2015.