Editorial: Change Main Street plan to save 5 parking spaces? No way!
The much-discussed multi-million-dollar redesign of Concord’s Main Street is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The city council shouldn’t blow it by substituting a hasty and shortsighted decision to preserve a handful of parking spaces for a design that took months of work by an advisory committee and professionals to create.
Their design calls for two driving lanes separated by a traversable median, much wider sidewalks and angled parking on the east side of the street. Parking would be parallel on the west side of the street and contribute to the elimination of 27 parking spaces.
To save five of those spaces, the council, in a preliminary vote last week, opted to create a hybrid plan with parallel parking on most of the street’s west side but angled parking between Capitol Plaza and Warren Street. Parking spaces are important, but the hybrid crosses a turkey with a swan. A row of angled parking would destroy sight lines, slow traffic, create safety issues, shrink sidewalks and look odd, all to preserve five spaces that, likely as not, would be monopolized by downtown employees.
Vehicles don’t attract people and make them want to linger. Wide sidewalks with trees and plantings, public art, places to sit, sidewalk cafes, fountains and water features do. To make the design work and revitalize downtown, angled parking on the west side has to go.
The design, created with input from community members, makes many wonderful changes to Main Street, but not all of them have unanimous support. To better showcase Eagle Square and draw people to it, the plan calls for moving the clock tower at its entrance down the street, putting it in front of Phenix Hall. The New Hampshire Historical Society, which owns the clock, opposes the move, but it’s nonetheless in the city’s interest to relocate it. Eagle Square is a beautiful public space, one woefully under-used because people don’t know it’s there, thanks in part to the clock tower, which blocks a view into the square from the State House Plaza.
As for Eagle Square, the city plans to renovate it this summer in a project that should include adding more trees to provide shade. That will make the square more inviting in summer. The square, which already boasts a large granite waterfall, would be a good place for a “splashable” fountain that would provide a place for children to play and families to linger. The Main Street design calls for such a fountain near the arch at the entrance to the State House Plaza. We like the idea, but the frequent protests held there, and the objections of some to siting such a fountain beneath a war memorial, make it an issue ripe for compromise. So is the fate of Phenix Avenue, which was initially planned to be converted to a pocket park. The use of the narrow avenue should change, but how could depend on whether the redesign project leads to changes on badly under-used Low Avenue.
The council should not compromise on plans to improve the street’s underground infrastructure by extending natural gas lines and installing the piping needed to heat Main Street sidewalks in winter. The latter will be possible even if Concord Steam’s plan to build a new plant falls through. The former is necessary to give downtown building owners the ability to switch fuels if necessary to keep their spaces open and rented.
The design’s wide sidewalks will make it possible to eliminate virtually all the barriers that make navigating downtown difficult for the disabled. That’s real progress. The design will make Main Street bikeable for the first time in decades. That, too, could reduce the need for parking.
The plan the advisory committee and design team came up with isn’t perfect, but it’s so good that it deserves to pass without wholesale tinkering. The design the council adopts on Thursday will determine the look, and perhaps the economic health, of downtown for decades. That design must not look back but forward to a time when more people live downtown and parking spaces are less, not more, important.