Street-level art proposed for Frenchtown: City Council generally likes Michael Shaughnessy’s creative idea, but seeks answers to safety concerns.

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Westbrook resident Mike Shaughnessy wants to paint streets in Westbrook much like the Jarrett Grove street painting in Portland, Oregon.

WESTBROOK — A resident wants to paint the city’s streets, and no, not just the traffic lines.

Former mayoral candidate Mike Shaughnessy has proposed painting murals and colorful designs directly onto some streets in Westbrook. He presented the idea to the City Council in a workshop meeting Monday night where it met with some concerns, primarily about safety issues.

“I want to see this done, but not at this moment,” Councilor Victor Chau said June 19. “We need answers to these questions.”

Shaughnessy, who ran for mayor this past November, is the president of the Friends of the Presumpscot River organization and a longtime art professor at the University of Southern Maine. He said he got the idea to paint the streets after seeing painted streets in Portland, Oregon. Streets have also been painted in other Oregon cities, as well as cities in Washington and Wisconsin.

In Westbrook, Shaughnessy wants to start by painting the intersection of Brown and North streets. Eventually he said he’d like to have other streets in the city painted as well.

“The artwork is almost secondary to bringing people together,” he said.

Street painting unites neighborhoods and gives people pride in where they live, Shaughnessy said. He said this would have a positive impact on the Frenchtown neighborhood.

“When neighborhoods claim their space it creates bonds and it’s something I don’t think we have enough of,” he said.

Councilors were supportive of the idea, but were also wary of unknown consequences. 

“I love the concept of colorfulness and pictures, but I have concerns,” Councilor Gary Rairdon said.

One of the biggest concerns was the distraction the painted streets could create for drivers. Councilors said they were worried drivers wouldn’t focus on where they were going if they were staring at the paintings.

Shaughnessy disputed this and said the painted streets would create “visual friction” and force people to slow down.

“There’s a whole lot people are distracted by,” he said. “I think this will focus people’s attention on the intersection.”

Councilor John O’Hara said he was worried about the safety of children. He said children may be drawn to the artwork and if they’re standing in the street wearing brightly colored clothing, they may blend in with the painting and not be as visible to drivers.

O’Hara said the road may have too high of a volume for the project.

“Well-intentioned people and well-intentioned ideas don’t necessarily work on well-traveled roads,” he said.

Other councilors had safety concerns as well and said they were worried about the effect the paint would have on tire traction. Eric Dudley, the city’s director of engineering and public works, said painted roadways reduce friction, which makes braking and turning more dangerous, especially for bicycles and motorcycles.

Dudley said this safety hazard could create more of a liability for the city if an accident occurred in the proposed intersection. He said painting the streets would also take city out of compliance with federal uniform guidelines for street consistency.

“When you deviate from that you put in confusion for the motorists,” Dudley said. “We want motorists to be comfortable so they know what to do.”

O’Hara also said the paint may be easily worn away by traffic, weather, and plow trucks. Dudley said standard road markings usually need paint touch ups each spring, but Shaughnessy said repainting would be seen as a positive aspect of the project.

“They aren’t necessarily permanent and they’ll fade, but that can be a good thing because it’ll bring communities together again,” Shaughnessy said.

Shaughnessy said this is a “way to develop community through creativity” and that it will make the neighbors more familiar with each other. He said this could reduce crime because neighbors will look out for each other more.

Painted streets are a “low budget attraction,” Shaughnessy said, and that painting the intersection of Brown and North streets would cost around $750. He said he believes this money could be raised through donations.

Shaughnessy said the low cost would result in a high payoff for the city.

“It’s something we could become known for,” he said. “It’s something we could be proud of.”

Assistant City Administrator John Wipfler said painted streets would make Westbrook unique and would attract people to the area. He said people from other areas of Westbrook, as well as the state, would want to come see the paintings and that it’d be good for economic development.

The council decided it wants more information on the consequences of painting the streets before it moves forward with the idea. City Administrator Jerre Bryant said Wipfler and other city staff will gather information and report back to the council on July 10.

Despite concerns, the City Council agreed painting the streets sounds like it might be a good idea.

“I definitely support this idea,” Council President Brendan Rielly said. “There’s a real beauty in creating something and seeing it from start to finish, especially in areas that may not have a lot of beauty or power.”

Kate Gardner can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or kgardner@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @katevgardner.

Westbrook resident Mike Shaughnessy wants to paint streets in Westbrook much like the Jarrett Grove street painting in Portland, Oregon.

Street paintings, like one on Beech Street in Portland, Oregon, has inspired resident Mike Shaughnessy to propose similar projects in Westbrook.

The City Council is considering a resident’s proposal to paint a colorful design on the street at the intersection of Brown and North streets.

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