Congress Square Redesign is Launched

congress-square

Lighting could help mark Congress Square as a special place in downtown Portland.

On a recent Friday five groups of a half dozen people each spent about a half hour despite the cold and wind walking up the five streets leading to Congress Square, talking constantly, taking notes, jotting opinions. Each group contained a member of the Boston design firms of Klopfer Martin or Utile, recently chosen to propose a redesign for the square.

The groups returned to a conference room in the upper reaches of the Art Museum to compile and compare notes. The note takers were either members of the Square’s Redesign Committee the City Council formed several years ago, or invitees with stakes in the square’s future. Before heading outdoors, they had all received a lively primer on ways to view a square from the design team.

For all the ongoing disputes about Congress Square Plaza, this group’s takes on the square as a whole were remarkably similar and uncontroversial.

Among the Square’s major problems, car dominance (traffic/speed/noise) ranked first by almost all of the group. They ranked the square’s lack of identity as a recognizable place second. The lack of building edge activity both in the square and its approaches ranked third, and fourth came the lack of civic engagement spaces—places and furnishings that encouraged people to interact.

The only other issues getting at least two mentions from the five breakout groups were related to the top issues:

  • the inefficiency of traffic moving through the intersection,
  • the stress for pedestrians trying to cross the space,
  • the lack of trees or shrubs that might define the place as a whole and smaller gathering spaces, and
  • poorly coordinated or cared for pavements underfoot.

Addressing these issues neglected for years at one of downtown’s major intersections trumpets the arrival in Portland of a long-overdue shift in urban transportation planning that could help make parts of the city substantially more livable.

Proposed improvements ranged from the cheap, quick, and flexible—like adding loose chairs around the square—to total overhauls taking years and costing millions. Interestingly, none of the proposed solutions directly suggested constructing an event room at the hotel, unless it created an active interaction with the adjacent street space.

Earlier suggestions for the Square’s future, posted on bulletin boards at City Hall, online, and in the Square itself can be found here.

The Art Museum’s director Mark Bessire was not opposed to one suggestion, a name change, to Museum Square, perhaps humorously proposed but seriously separating this square from all the other intersections on Congress Street.

However, the key to the square’s future may reside in the next place the designers visited that Friday Feb. 28: the traffic engineer’s office.

Several attendees favored either blocking off Free Street or backing the proposed change of High Street to two-way traffic, or both. Meanwhile, the Maine Department of Transportation is considering moving the state designation of High Street as Route 77 through the city to the Fore River Parkway, which would reduce traffic through the square.

But the real electricity running through the local design community and mentioned in this meeting favors turning Congress Square into a shared space, where pedestrians have the priority, and motorists proceed cautiously for lack of directive signals or signage.

This video from the town of Poynton in England is prompting the excitement:

It depicts the improbable reality of an intersection not unlike Congress Square in the center of a town with constant heavy flows of motorized traffic including heavy lorries being redesigned to move the traffic more promptly at slower speeds, speeds slow enough to cause almost no injuries, while always giving way to pedestrians who cross whenever they arrive at the road’s edge.

Whether that proves to be the ultimate reality of Museum Sq…., err, Congress Square remains to be seen, but change is afoot.

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