Editorial: Main Street investment well worth it
Urban centers are not static. Concord’s historic downtown, depending on decisions made in the next few weeks, could turn toward higher vacancy rates, lower property values and increasing shabbiness, or take an upward path to increased vitality.
Do nothing, or make merely cosmetic changes to spruce things up as some suggest, and the decline will begin. Gamble by agreeing to spend $10 million-plus dollars to transform the streetscape, as city officials propose, and the trajectory should turn upward. We urge the council to vote in favor of moving ahead. Thanks to a $4.71 million federal grant and clever financing by the city, the impact on taxpayers, compared to the potential gain, is small.
The loss of heated sidewalks, perhaps the most popular part of a redesign of Main Street that was years in the making, should not doom the project. That amenity was only possible economically as long as Concord Steam’s dream of a new wood-fired power plant became a reality, but that dream was not to be.
To move forward means giving up other dreams, including plans to minimize the harm to businesses by conducting most construction at night. That requirement, among others, resulted in construction bids that came in double the projections. So out with the night work.
Severino Trucking, whose name is a reflection of its past and not its present as the company that carried out redesigns in downtown Portsmouth, Newmarket and Somersworth, will primarily work from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Staying within the city’s $10.22 million budget required a departure from the norm that made suspicious-minded residents fear chicanery.
Instead of putting out a request for bids for the project and looking bug-eyed upon opening them, the city engineer, consultants and others worked with Severino to arrive at costs for each element of the project. The ones deemed to have too little bang for the buck – iron fencing around the planters and solar-powered trash cans, for example – were scratched. The unfortunately situated clock tower will remain where it is, blocking the view into Eagle Square.
Negotiating such matters behind close doors was a violation of transparency that we reluctantly agree was necessary for the project to progress. In the end, however, all decisions will be made after public input and by the city council, not city officials.
To stay within budget, the redesign had to shrink from 12 blocks to the nine that form the spine of the current downtown.
Again, a necessary change. Most of the elements created with input from the 17-member citizen panel remain. The street will shrink from the sort-of four lanes it is now, to two wide lanes with a cobblestone median. The sidewalks will be widened to, in most places, 18 feet; the two-step curb on the west side of the street, which might as well be a wall for people in wheelchairs, will be eliminated. So too will the steps to 18 of the 20 buildings now inaccessible to people with a mobility disability.
To offset the loss of heated sidewalks, and to alleviate the fear that landscaping and other investments would soon deteriorate for want of adequate maintenance, the redesign plan calls for the city to designate four employees to serve as year-round maintenance personnel and Main Street ambassadors.
One cut, given the size of the overall project, isn’t worth making. That’s the plan to save some $160,000 by eliminating uplighting at each tree planter.
Lights, particularly given energy-efficient LEDs, are a cheap way to beautify a cityscape and create dramatic effects.
One thing the redesign project won’t do is connect Concord’s downtown with its river, but that may yet happen. It’s possible, when Interstate 93 is widened, that a portion of the interstate as it passes through downtown will be buried to permit greenspace above it. If that happens, the investment Concord makes in its Main Street today will become even more valuable, and downtown Concord’s future even brighter.