Rockland authorizes June closures of Main Street; logistics to be determined


ROCKLAND — When, and even if, Rockland turns Downtown Main Street into a pedestrian mall during the month of June, Jersey barriers will be set up at Park Street and Glovers Passage (just south of Lindsay Street), as well as at side streets. For at least the first closure, a police unit working for overtime pay will monitor social distancing while circulating through the crowds.   

As Rockland City Council voted, May 11, to authorize Main Street closures during the month of June, they also acknowledged safety concerns, as well as the fact that though the majority of downtown businesses support a street closure in some variation – according to Main Street Inc director David Gogel – others remain in opposition.

“We do want to make sure everybody understands the importance of social distancing,” said City Manager Tom Luttrell, during the May 11 City Council meeting. “And, we’re putting our first responders in the midst of many people gathering on Main Street, which puts them at risk even further.”

For some business owners, the speed at which Council pushed the order to close Main Street adds to an already existent anxiety and fear of getting the proper reopening supplies in place before June 1. It also forces merchants to alter, again, recent business operations that have been successful for them, i.e., curbside pickup and delivery service.

“We’re obviously doing this quite fast,” said Councilor Nate Davis. “The ideal process would have been to have anticipated the pandemic a year ago, convened a task force a year ago….We take the opportunities life presents….I think we are reacting to circumstances and making the best of it as they come to us.”

Davis stated that the redesign would not be done in a way that would cripple deliveries for Loyal Biscuit, or any other business. In voting the street closure forward, Council makes the June closures an option. If it only occurs once, it would at least satisfy the experimental mindset conjured by other Council members.

“This is really a once-in-a-generation opportunity, not just for Main Street in Rockland, but around the world, to try to re-envision aspects of how society is constructed,” said Davis. “And part of that for me is re-envisioning the way we think of our streetscapes, or cityscapes….This is not an exotic idea at all.”

In the next two weeks, many decisions still must be hashed out among Council, MDOT, and the closure task force (which, so far, includes Luttrell, Police Chief Chris Young, and Fire Chief Chris Whytock, and additional input from businesses). Should the street close to vehicles during the week, or just weekends, or to first aim for one particular Saturday just to see how it goes? 

Councilor Valli Geiger stated great disappointment with the opposition by some businesses, stating the need for creativity if merchants want to attract customers to the downtown area. Though Geiger said she didn’t want to second-guess businesses, she also stated a need to jump in feet first; otherwise, the summer is already lost. 

“I really fear that in their desperate wanting to get back to business the way it was, that they are thinking this [pandemic] will go away,” she said. “I think we are in for the long haul. I think most epidemiologists are seeing vaccines being a year to three away. I see a lot of older people that I’m talking to are very hesitant; they have no intention of going Downtown unless they can absolutely be assured that social distancing and safety will be at the forefront. Given how little we expect of a lot of travel from out of state, a lot of tourists – I think this is a pretty low risk experiment for the month of June. If we do it right, and if we do it joyfully, and make it a beautiful place to stroll, and be, and shop, and eat, I think it changes Rockland forever, and only in a good way.”

Councilor Ed Glaser also supports creating an all-inclusive destination. However, he spoke of frustration with Geiger and Davis’s repeat references to closed streets in Seattle, New York City, and Burlington, Vermont’s Church Street. Rockland cannot be put in the same categories as those places, he said. Church Street was created specifically as a pedestrian venue, and the large cities have other major roadways that can detour traffic more easily. 

Councilor Ben Dorr, himself a downtown merchant, stated a desire to see one lane of traffic running through Main Street Rockland with more restaurant seating on the sides of the roads, or public garden space. 

“I’m going to vote for this [June 1 to June 30 street closure order] because it allows for the flexibility,” he said. “But I think that if we don’t approach this with an eye for a longterm re-visioning of how we make Main Street Rockland more pedestrian and cyclist friendly, if we just close Main Street for 30 days, I think that’s a net loss. We really need to look at this and design it effectively, and take the stakeholders into account, and come up with something really good and interesting and beautiful. I think we are capable of that. We should take the opportunity to do it the right way.”

 

See our previous article: Rockland continues to consider closures of downtown Main Street

Reach Sarah Thompson at news@penbaypilot.com



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