Concord City Council approves Main Street designs
North Main Street, Concord during Market Days; Thursday, July 19, 2012. (Alexander Cohn/ Monitor file)
It’s official: Concord’s Main Street will have a new look by 2015. The city council voted last night to approve plans for the downtown overhaul, one year after receiving a $4.71 million federal grant for the project.
The redesigned Main Street will have two wide lanes with enough space for cars and bikes, a crossable center median and wider sidewalks to improve accessibility and make space for public art. It will have mostly angled parking on the east side of the street, and parallel parking on the west side – angled spaces that were tentatively added last week were removed last night.
Mayor Jim Bouley said the courageous revitalization project is the “most scrutinized” he’s seen in Concord, with more than 50 public meetings.
“Our downtown is considered the heart of the city, and everybody wants a healthy heart,” Bouley said.
Last night’s vote was 14-1; Ward 1 Councilor Liz Blanchard voted against the project.
“I cannot in good conscience vote in favor of this project, not because I don’t like the project, but because I don’t like the process – how we are down to the wire and forced to make a decision without knowing where the all money is coming from,” she said.
Blanchard said she opposes the project despite reminders from other councilors that the council has approved revitalization projects for Penacook village, which she represents. The Main Street project “is not comparable to Penacook,” she said.
Councilor Dick Patten said he shares Blanchard’s concerns, but decided last night to support the project.
“I will be voting for it, again, with some reservations,” said Patten, who did not attend a public hearing last month or any of the three work sessions about Main Street in the past two weeks.
Despite worries over the project’s cost, Councilor Keith Nyhan said he believes in the city council’s financial judgment and the need to revitalize downtown.
“Every now and then in life, you have to take a couple steps backwards in order to get a running start forward,” he said.
Plans for the approximately $10.35 million project will be submitted to the U.S. Department of Transportation next week. Construction is scheduled to begin in September. The project, formally called the Downtown Complete Streets Improvement Project, will span from South Main and Storrs streets to North Main and Storrs streets.
Parking and public input
During work sessions last week, the city council voted to keep angled parking spaces on a portion of the west side of North Main Street. The change, which came after concern over a loss of parking spaces, had five more parking spaces than with parallel parking. But the sidewalks would have become narrower than their current width.
That plan was changed again last night. Councilors voted to return to the design team’s parking layout and maintain wider sidewalks.
“I spent a lot of time researching for the last few weeks downtown, visiting with merchants, talking to customers,” said Councilor Michael DelloIacono. “I support taking the angled parking and putting it back to parallel parking on the west side.”
Councilor Jennifer Kretovic said parking is important, but the city needs a large-scale revitalization.
“There is something else going on that is preventing us from being successful,” she said. “And I listen to our young entrepreneurs and our young professionals and I go, you know what? We have to keep them here. . . . We have to do something and it goes well beyond parking.”
The council heard input from 28 residents and business owners last night.
Nearly all of them spoke about parking, and most of them opposed last week’s move to add angled parking spaces.
Tonya Rochette, president of Intown Concord’s board of directors, urged the council to “not be shortsighted” in adding a few more parking spaces at the expense of accessibility and wider sidewalks.
“We have some incredible and truly unique locations on Main Street that are worth the extra steps to come and visit,” Rochette said.
Betsy McNamara said it was “distressing” that the council considered narrowing sidewalks to add parking spaces. McNamara has been an advocate for improved accessibility downtown, and she served as a member of the advisory committee that worked on the Main Street project last fall.
“I believe firmly in the big vision with the wide sidewalks,” she said.
Kate Putnam, a member of the Concord Young Professionals Network who works at White Rock Senior Living Community in Bow, asked the council not to focus on parking.
“Everyone wants to see Concord be more than it is right now,” Putnam said. “And I think that’s exciting.”
Not everyone favored the change to fewer parking spaces.
Sue McCoo, owner of Viking House and The Capitol Craftsman & Romance Jewelers, said an elderly customer drove around the block 12 times yesterday because she couldn’t find a parking space.
Karen Page, who owns Flag-Works Over America on North Main Street, said she’s “scared to death” of losing parking spaces to create a more attractive streetscape.
“Yes, all these things will look great and make the downtown look nice, but that’s just looks,” Page said. “What we hear about is the difficulty in finding adequate parking. All the time, year-round.”
State Rep. Rick Watrous, a Concord resident, said he opposes the entire project.
“You’re talking about drastically changing the heart of downtown Concord,” he said. “And you’re gambling with all of that, and all the business in downtown with this project. And I’m afraid that if it goes wrong, it’s going to be a disaster for Concord.”
Developer Steve Duprey, who chaired the project’s advisory committee, acknowledged that it’s crucial to help downtown businesses. But the project is about safety, accessibility and community, he said.
“Most of us in this wonderful small town see each other on Main Street – that’s where we talk to each other,” Duprey said. “So it serves the purpose of sort of being the community’s living room. And our living room’s tired.”
Bouley said last night that it’s important to be courageous, because the project has more positive than negative aspects.
“I’m scared too, I’m afraid,” Bouley said. “And I am very sympathetic to our local retailers and their concerns. . . . But at the same time we can’t be paralyzed by our fear of not moving forward.”
The Main Street designs also include:
∎ Relocating the clocktower from Eagle Square to Phenix Hall.
∎ Trees and plantings along the sidewalks.
∎ New light fixtures with space for hanging banners.
∎ More outdoor seating, including granite benches in the State House plaza and metal benches on sidewalks.
∎ A permanent information center near the State House.
∎ Circular bicycle racks.
∎ Solar-powered trash and recycling compactors.
∎ Burying utilities on South Main Street, or moving them behind the buildings.
∎ Way-finding signage.
∎ Banners that could span Main Street to announce events like the annual Market Days festival.
The project no longer includes fountains on the State House plaza or a pocket park on Phenix Avenue. But Phenix Avenue will be closed to traffic, and the city could make changes in the future.
Other aspects remain uncertain.
Plans approved last night do include a sidewalk snowmelt system powered by heat from Concord Steam, but the company hasn’t secured a financing package for its long-delayed plant in the South End.
Duprey is now helping Concord Steam secure financing for its new plant. He said last night that he won’t have answers for another month, but encouraged the city to plan for heated sidewalks.
“There’s been a lot of progress made,” Duprey said. “I wouldn’t even suggest this as an option if I didn’t think we had a realistic chance of pulling this off.”
Some financing decisions won’t be made until after July, when the city learns whether it received a state tax credit grant. Tax credits could cover up to $1.12 million of the $1.57 million needed from the private sector.
The city council will wait for that result before making a decision about a special assessment district for downtown properties to pay off the remaining private sector costs. Councilors also haven’t decided whether to create a business improvement district, through which property owners would pay for ongoing maintenance costs.
Designs for accessibility into downtown businesses also aren’t final. But the council authorized city staff members last night to work with property owners and increase accessibility as much as possible.
Years of effort culminated in last night’s vote.
It’s been a year since the city received a $4.71 million grant to complete the project. But discussion of an improved Main Street began in 2008.
In 2011, two local nonprofits presented a “Re-Thinking Main Street” report that became the basis for the city’s federal grant application. Concord unsuccessfully applied for a federal grant in 2011 and then reapplied last year.
Councilor Dan St. Hilaire said last night it’s been the most transparent project he’s seen in Concord, and it’s a “no-brainer” to support.
“There hasn’t been one item that somebody couldn’t testify 10 times about, including where to place a trash can,” he said.
Last September, Bouley and the city council appointed a 17-member advisory committee made up of business owners, residents and three city councilors. The committee’s report was accepted by the city council at the end of November. The report included the two-lane plan and led to the parking layouts approved last night.
Councilor Steve Shurtleff noted last night that many residents have spent hours working on this project.
“It’s the people that make our city so great,” he said.