2016-06-30 / News

Downtown upgrades pass

By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A design for a Main Street sidewalk and lighting improvement project set to begin this summer got the city council’s OK at its June 21 meeting with Councilor at large Marc Lessard the dissenter in an 8-1 vote.

The plan, which was amended unanimously to remove the use of 15 portable tree planters, will be sent to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission for approval.

City Manager James Bennett said the Historic Preservation Commission’s approval is a requirement of using federal money for the project.

“If it wasn’t for the federal money, in all likelihood, we would not be sending it to the commission,” Bennett said.

The design calls for a reconstruction of concrete sidewalks between Adams and Elm streets, adjusting curb ramps that aren’t compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, replacing trees that are infringing upon utility lines, replacing street lighting fixtures and narrowing the curb line near the intersection of Main and York streets. Flush cobblestone would also be placed in no-parking zones near crosswalks as a traffic calming element.

Tom Nosal, a design engineer for RANSOM Consulting who helped present the design to the council, said the cobblestone to be used was pulled out of Lincoln Street.

“The city already owns them,” he said. “That’s an element that I like, taking historic material buried under Lincoln Street and bringing it back to the surface.”

Community Development Coordinator Linda Waters said engineering and design of the project have cost $125,000 and implementing the improvements will cost $200,000, all paid for from the city’s Community Development Block Grant.

Ward 2 City Councilor John McCurry asked if calming traffic circles at intersections, such as at the intersection of Adams and Main streets, would be a part of the plan. Bennett said the circles could be added in later if the council wanted, because the Main Street paving project happening after the sidewalk and lighting improvements, will pave Main Street except for the intersections.

Nosal said the circles were indicated on the design map to demonstrate that the sidewalk design was compatible with potential plans to install traffic calming circles at a later time.

Public Works Director Guy Casavant said taking care of the trees, whether permanently planted ones or those in planters, is going to require maintenance that could be beyond that which volunteers can provide. Planters that are currently located downtown are watered and maintained by volunteers through Heart of Biddeford instead of by public works employees. In the past, they have been planted and maintained by the Downtown Development Commission in collaboration with Heart of Biddeford, Bennett said.

The planters were not placed outside this year due to the pending sidewalk and street construction.

“Part of this project is planting a lot of trees. There are 16 trees going in the ground permanently and then a set number to be defined with trees in planters,” Casavant said. “That’s all great and wonderful and looks great on a picture, but taking care of it is going to be the proof in the pudding on how this will be put together. When you plant something new, there is a big need for water. Water is an issue.

“We’ve had planters downtown and getting them watered has always been a problem. It’s been done by volunteers and the way they’ve gone about doing it is time consuming, almost unbearable … with the investment we’re making downtown, without having our eyes on the longer terms of taking care of this stuff, if we’re going to build it, I would think shame on us if we don’t address one of the biggest nuts of it, which is the watering part. Rest assured, building it is one thing, taking care of it is a challenge.”

Holly Culloton, who volunteers with Heart of Biddeford to water planters downtown, said the city shouldn’t depend on volunteers to water the city’s trees and new planters.

“What needs will trees in planters have? What costs are associated with the need? If there are costs, where will it come from, how will it be watered?” she asked the council.

Bennett said the use of volunteers to maintain the planters is the continuation of a dialogue that began a few years ago, before he became city manager.

“The city eliminated employees that used to take care of parks. This is a continuation of an unresolved issue from prior to me being here,” he said. “We’re going to try and obtain the necessary equipment to be able to make doing the volunteer work on this simpler and easier.

“If we don’t have a volunteer program that is dependable, we have to make sure we have the resources and reassign priorities to do it.”

Bennett said if the council moved forward with planters, the city would put out a bid for the planters, which would include maintaining and watering them for the first year, at a likely cost of $4,000 to $5,000.

Ward 7 Councilor Michael Ready agreed that a maintenance plan would need to be developed.

“It could be something a volunteer could do, but we need to take responsibility for this as a city,” he said. “If we’re going to put one tree out there, we need to develop a plan for how the city will take care of it, not just put it up and hope volunteers will take care of it.”

“If we have a very effective program that uses volunteers to do something and it’s getting done, that’s effective, but we need to be prepared,” said Bennett. “We could have a very effective program with volunteers, but don’t want to preclude volunteers if it works … I don’t build something unless I have plans to take care of it. We have retroactive fixes we need to take care of and work with staff on.”

Mayor Alan Casavant said some residents with disabilities expressed concern about ADA compliance of pedestrian walkways and crosswalks.

“They hear the word ‘cobblestones’ and get nervous,” the mayor said.

Bennett said the pedestrian areas will be ADA compliant.

Waters said the city would probably not have the funds to buy all the planters, but she wanted to present the entire design to the Maine Historic Preservation Commission because it would be easier to make changes to the plan if the commission had all the information in hand. Waters suggested that only a couple of planters would be purchased as a pilot program to see how well the city was able to maintain them. The planters would have to be moved by forklift and truck and placed in a garage during the winter months.

After discussion, councilors unanimously removed the planters from the design, citing concerns about maintenance, before approving the plan as a whole.

Bennett said he has asked Waters to continue dialogue with the usual partners, Downtown Development Commission and Heart of Biddeford, “so we can end up having some buy-in and alignment with all.”

When the details of the planters are worked out, Bennett said he will bring that component of the design back to the council for approval.

Construction on the Main Street improvements could begin in July. The improvements will be completed before Main Street is repaved later this year.

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