Maine Medical Center employee garage on Saint John Street leads to the loss of on-street parking and other concerns from neighbors
By Cameron Autry
The construction of the Maine Medical Center employee garage on 190 Saint John Street is raising concerns from members of the St. John Valley neighborhood. Namely, a loss of on-street resident parking, excessive nighttime lighting, and the blockage of water views and afternoon sun have fueled tensions between the hospital and the neighborhood.
The Portland Planning Board approved the project in December 2018, despite voiced concerns from the community. The plan allowed for the removal of thirteen on-street parking spaces along the intersection of D Street and Saint John Street, in order to accommodate anticipated increased traffic flow from the new parking garage.
The decision to remove the on-street parking stirred immediate backlash from the neighborhood, as several houses were left without any parking at all within a reasonable distance from the buildings.
‘MM HURTS NEIGHBORS’
Alan Prosser, a landlord and business owner on Saint John Street, noted that houses on the street affected by the loss of parking are primarily rental properties housing working-class families.
“So if you can imagine not being able to park even near your house in the winter with groceries and kids,” said Prosser. “It poses a considerable hardship to those folks.”
Prosser, an active member in the community, gained attention for putting up a sign with the slogan “MM Hurts Neighbors” in front of his Volvo restoration shop on 195 Saint John Street.
The loss of parking quickly became a topic of contention among members of Maine Med’s Neighborhood Advisory Committee. As required by the Portland Planning Board, this group formed in 2017 for hospital representatives and nearby residents to discuss the impact of the hospital’s expansion on the adjoining neighborhoods. District 2 City Councilor Spencer Thibodeau also attends these meetings, which take place monthly.
As a result of outcry from the surrounding neighborhoods, the Department of Planning and Urban Development approved a new traffic pattern to restore four of the original thirteen lost parking spaces. Then, following further grievances that returning only four parking spaces did not go far enough, the Department redesigned the intersection once again to regain a total of nine on-street parking spaces.
But for Prosser, who is not a member of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee, the left turn only lane is entirely unnecessary, and he says that congestion has not been an issue since the garage opened.
“Our hope is that the left turning lane will prove to be unnecessary and that the original traffic pattern will be retained,” said Prosser. “They literally took away the parking to make a dedicated lane for that left turn.”
In fact, Prosser hired a traffic engineer to study the intersection and determine whether the turn lane would be necessary. The engineer, Bill Bray, has worked in traffic engineering and public works since 1969, including a seven-year stint as the Director of Public Works in Portland.
Bray stated in a written summation of his study that “a more desirable and logical travel route would be St. John St. onto ‘A’ Street to Valley Street to Congress Street. This travel route is the most direct to the hospital campus.”
The route proposed by Bray would direct hospital shuttles leaving the garage to turn left onto Saint John Street instead of right – thereby eliminating need for the left turn lane at the intersection with D Street. This is the route the shuttles presently take, and if this continues, the left turn only lane – which required the removal of on-street parking – will serve no purpose to the hospital.
MAINE MEDICAL CENTER RESPONDS
Mathew Wickenheiser, spokesman for Maine Med, confirmed that the hospital is still adjusting the route that the shuttles will take, and issued the following statement: “The City modified the Planning Board-approved traffic plan to retain several on-street parking spaces on St. John Street. MMC is currently installing traffic lights at the entrance to the garage, and believes that when they begin operating, they will assist with traffic flow.”
Speaking to the bigger picture, Wickenheiser also maintained that hospital expansion is necessary to accommodate increasing patient demand. Regarding how this would affect the neighborhood, he said, “I think it’s always a balance. We have to have an open dialogue.”
BRIGHT LIGHTS & BLOCKED VIEWS
But a loss of parking is not the only contention neighbors have with the hospital. Excessive nighttime lighting from the rooftop and stairwell of the parking garage has ruffled a few feathers – promptly becoming another matter of contention within the Neighborhood Advisory Committee.
“It lights up the neighborhood and shines right into the second and third floor windows – much brighter than daylight,” said Prosser.
“In regard to the garage lights,” said Wickenheiser, “we have heard the neighbors’ concerns and have begun moving lights in the stairwell to help mitigate the impact on the area while maintaining a safe environment for our employees.” Further, he expects modifications to the lighting to be completed by late February.
Prosser stated that the issue with the nighttime lighting seems to be resolved for the moment, but he did express one last concern about the garage: the blockage of waterfront views and the afternoon sunlight.
“Our apartments have had water views and sunsets, which are pleasing with sun coming in the window,” said Prosser. “And now at 2:30 in the afternoon, it’s dark and cold. And that definitely is a difference from how we have come to appreciate and enjoy it here.”
Cameron Autry is a freelance writer and the host of The Southern Maine Report podcast.