Editorial: On Main St., a once-in-generation effort
The years-long effort to redesign and reconfigure downtown Concord has, like an Olympic figure skater who blows a quadruple axel, landed on its butt. The city, for the second time, received a single construction bid that came in more than double the estimate expected by city engineers and a paid consulting firm. Much explaining lies ahead, but the question is what to do now.
We suggest that, like an Olympic skater, the city get up, readjust – drop the planned triple lutz – and complete the program. What must not happen is nothing. Concord’s downtown is tired. Its cultural and historic resources are on the brink of making the city a destination for visitors, but those attractions, and many Main Street businesses, are struggling. The city is at a tipping point. If only minor, cosmetic changes are made, downtown could tip in the wrong direction.
The first step, of course, is coming up with accurate, real-world estimates for each component of the project. Once that’s done, project planners and the city council can decide what’s in and what’s out, what’s worth borrowing for, if necessary, and what should be put off or scrapped.
Some things are a must. First among those is a redesign of Main Street that eliminates the steps up to sidewalk level that are a major impediment to accessibility. After all, that is what the receipt of the $4.71 million federal grant was largely based on. Downtown must be made safe and easy for everyone of every age and physical ability to visit and enjoy. Achieving that requires reducing the street from four lanes to three with a crossable median and islands that provide safe refuge for pedestrians. The current configuration creates continuously shifting blind spots for pedestrians and motorists alike. Crossing Main Street rarely feels safe and often isn’t.
Wider sidewalks are also a must, both to allow the great majority of the area’s historic buildings to be made handicap accessible and to allow for the sidewalk cafes and gathering places that give a destination downtown its ambiance. Heating the downtown street and sidewalks, while it may seem like a luxury, could also be the key to creating the kind of foot traffic that businesses need to prosper. New Hampshire is a graying state that’s less steady afoot than it once was. Few people are willing to go shopping at the risk of a broken hip. Heating the street and sidewalks, while it will come at some additional cost, will also free up human resources and allow the city to clear the sidewalks leading to schools and other critical areas more quickly, so everyone should benefit.
City officials need to clearly explain what it will cost to heat the streets and to what extent doing so is contingent on the continued operation of Concord Steam, a business whose fate is inextricably linked with that of downtown. Some downtown property owners could afford the substantial cost to retrofit their buildings so they could be heated with natural gas should steam heat become unaffordable or Concord Steam close. But some could not, and others would have to raise rent and lease rates to levels that would drive out tenants. What’s at stake, with the fate of the Main Street redesign project and cost of steam heat, is the future of Concord’s downtown. The redesign of a city’s Main Street is, at a minimum, a once-in-a-generation effort. Residents and visitors will live with the decisions made now for decades, so what’s done must be done right.
It will almost certainly make sense, once the scope of the Main Street project is reconsidered, for the city to bond the shortfall between its estimate and the bid that’s ultimately accepted. To decide, residents will need to know what every million dollars of long-term debt means for their tax bill. Our bet is that price will be not just affordable, but a good investment.