Downtown: Accessibility key to ‘complete’ Main Street

Last modified: Monday, February 03, 2014
A pocket park and public art. Heated sidewalks and a center median.

The flashy hallmarks of the Main Street redesign are now at stake, as city staff recuperates from a poor response to its second request for construction bids.

What is also at stake is a core aspect of the project – an accessible downtown. The city’s design for a new Main Street would fix some of the challenges the streetscape poses for those with physical disabilities or limited mobility. With the project uncertain, so is the future of Concord’s “complete street.”

“We have such a unique focus on trying to solve accessible issues on a surface transportation project. . . . Solving that really makes this a complete street,” City Engineer Ed Roberge said in a January interview. “And we’re proud of that.”

There’s been no word yet on how the city will move forward with the project – or which parts of it, if any, could be cut.

“We need to evaluate the bids, as we are, and evaluate the work scope, as we are, and evaluate where we think the priorities are and what’s most important,” Roberge said last week.

Included in the Main Street redesign is a plan to make most downtown storefronts and offices handicap accessible. Where one or two steps currently block the entrance of a business to wheelchair operators, for example, the path into that shop or restaurant would become a flat one.

Between 18 and 22 storefronts on Main Street are inaccessible, said Richard Cohen, executive director of the Disabilities Rights Center.

“The whole purpose of the complete streets . . . is to make the Main Street livable and accessible to all people,” Cohen said. “People with disabilities have the same needs and rights to participate in downtown activities.”

The construction would also remove the two-step curb on the west side of the street and reduce traffic from four lanes to two, which Cohen said would make crosswalks and on-street parking easier to navigate. The proposed changes would fall in line with the Americans with Disabilities Act, he said, but they would also respond to the needs of all pedestrians – including elderly people and families with strollers.

“By making both the street and the storefronts accessible, we’re definitely including all people,” Cohen said.

The Disabilities Rights Center has been advocating for a more accessible downtown even before the city applied for the $4.71 million federal grant that would pay for part of the Main Street project. In 2011, the center sued the owners of Phenix Hall, where two steps between the sidewalk and the storefronts make the building inaccessible to wheelchair users and others with limited mobility. Filed on behalf of three wheelchair users, the lawsuit claimed Mark Ciborowski, whose family owns Phenix Hall, should have made it accessible during a renovation in 2010.

The parties settled the case in November – and that settlement centers around the Main Street project. The downtown redesign would add a ramped sidewalk into the Phenix Hall storefronts, which include The Works Bakery Cafe and the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen. The agreement requires that Phenix Hall become accessible by the end of this year through the Main Street project.

Jack Crisp, Ciborowski’s attorney, said the settlement does include a backup plan if the project falls through.

“In the event that this does not happen, then there is a provision in the agreement to provide access through the back of the building,” Crisp said.

Ciborowski also had to pay about $32,000 to the Disabilities Rights Center as part of the settlement agreement.

“I think we’re going to hope that the project in some manner goes forward and does a lot of good for the city in solving all these problems of access,” Crisp said.

Those problems of access, Mayor Jim Bouley said, are an important piece of a project aimed to improve the downtown area for all Concord residents.

“If we were going to make changes to Main Street, it seemed like a great opportunity to bring all the buildings to a point where they’re accessible,” Bouley said.

But the city has questions to answer before anyone can say what stays and what goes from the Main Street design that is supposed to complete the downtown.

“We’re going to get a better idea of, is this project viable in any form,” Bouley said.

What could come out of the Main Street project – or what could fall apart – is something more than cosmetic changes. What’s at stake here is more than a pretty downtown for shoppers.

“We’re hoping that it’ll all go forward,” Cohen said. “It’s a great project for all citizens, with or without disabilities. Our hope is that if only parts go forward that all of the accessibility pieces will be considered a core part.”

Farewell to the Moose Myth

The 22-foot-tall Moose Myth sculpture stood out during its temporary display in downtown Concord, but to artists Andy Moerlein of Bow and Donna Dodson of Boston, it fit perfectly in New Hampshire.

“The moose seemed like an appropriate New Hampshire icon, and the moose man is an opportunity to speak to the fact that there’s something magical about the moose that we can all relate to,” Moerlein said. “We see it kind of as a noble kind of spirit or sacred entity of the forest.”

The piece of public art had a public end at the Black Ice Pond Hockey tournament, where the sapling sculpture became fuel for a bonfire. But it had spent the last two years in front of the Smile Building in downtown Concord.

“When it’s in public, it’s really open to interpretation,” Dodson said. “It puts your work to a different test, if people can read it or if it makes them feel something or laugh, if it sparks their imagination.”

And while Moerlein and Dodson show their work in galleries and sell pieces to art collectors, they both said a sculpture works well in a city center.

The artists always meant for the sculpture to be temporary because of its natural materials. The saplings themselves drew spectators to the standing moose as much as the unique form did, Moerlein said.

“Those saplings have a friendliness and a sensibility that steel doesn’t, and people really – they’re attracted to it,” Moerlein said. “It seems natural and comfortable and familiar, even if the forms that we choose are rather unusual.”

And when the moose went up in flames at the Black Ice tournament, the artists felt it was a poetic death among the sculpture’s real owners.

“It belongs to the public,” Dodson said.

Save your spot

Scour for a downtown parking spot no more. Fifteen uncovered parking spaces are now available for immediate lease in the Durgin Block Parking Garage.

The lease rate is $1,044 per space, per year. That’s a cost savings compared with parking in the garage every day without leasing a spot, said Matt Walsh, director of redevelopment, downtown services and special projects.

Parking in the garage typically costs 50 cents per hour, and the city charges for parking nine hours a day, excluding weekends and holidays.

That amounts to a little more than $80 saved per year by leasing a space, Walsh said.

“But more importantly than the slight savings, you have your own dedicated space that no one else can use, and it’s always there for you,” Walsh said.

The Durgin Block Parking Garage is located just west of Main Street, between School and Warren streets. Drivers can enter the garage from either of those streets. Contact Walsh at 225-8570 or mwalsh@concordnh.gov for more information.

(Megan Doyle can be reached at 369-3321 or mdoyle@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @megan_e_doyle.)