Editorial: Don’t give up on heated sidewalks
The plan to heat downtown Concord’s sidewalks must not be abandoned. It was one of the only changes to Main Street that enjoyed almost unanimous support, and for good reason. When it meets next week, the city council should invest in the future – not just of Main Street but the entire community – and vote to keep heated sidewalks in the plan.
The snowfall on Feb. 5 left Main Street sidewalks unpassable for all but the most intrepid for days. Even after most walks were cleared, pedestrians had to scale a wall of snow to get from street to sidewalk or court danger by walking in the street until a chink in the wall presented itself. Downtown was nearly empty.
A week after that snowfall, the majority of sidewalks were cleared, although chalky white with salt, but patches of snow and ice could still be found. Then another storm hit, and the cycle began again, leaving walks treacherous on Valentine’s Day, a big day for merchants.
Heating the sidewalks would eliminate the barrier wall, make downtown welcoming and help businesses thrive. That, in turn, would raise the property values of downtown real estate and help reimburse taxpayers for their investment.
It’s clear that some parts of the ambitious redesign plan will have to be altered, dropped or postponed. The plan to widen sidewalks can’t be eliminated, since it’s the key to making downtown buildings accessible to the handicapped. So is the plan to re-grade the road to eliminate the step up to sidewalk level on the west side of Main Street.
So what can give? Some of the plantings, certainly, along with the pocket parks and automated trash cans. Another candidate, one big enough to offset the cost of heating the sidewalks, whether with steam or natural gas, is the plan to bury the utility lines on South Main Street at a cost of roughly $2.3 million.
Scrapping that part of the plan could, however, slow or prevent redevelopment on South Main, including that of the soon-to-be vacant Employment Security building. It would mean a loss of future tax revenue that, over time, could exceed the cost of burying the lines. The council should seek plenty of input before making that decision.
Nightime work, the requirement that contractors preserve 75 percent of all existing parking spaces during construction, and severely limiting the length of street that can be dug up at any given time all significantly raise the price and lengthen the construction period. Dropping those requirements puts downtown merchants at greater risk.
The council should help offset the disruption by making parking free on Storrs Street and perhaps, with time limits to prevent downtown workers from hogging the spaces, in parts of downtown.
While it’s at it, the council should reconsider its virtual ban on new surface parking lots. In Portsmouth, one of the most popular parking lots in that city is a surface lot across from restaurants and entertainment venues. Ditto in Manchester, where the surface lot near the Center of New Hampshire is a magnet for visitors.
Cities that invest to become beautiful, walkable and safe, that invest in public parks and other amenities thrive. Those that don’t, shrivel. Money is still cheap to borrow. Concord’s Main Street badly needs a complete makeover. The council should vote to support all but the most extraneous changes called for in the redesign plan.