BRATTLEBORO — A new downtown plan highlights the need to think about how public spaces are arranged and contribute to a community’s wellbeing.
“Among the buildings in downtown Brattleboro is a network of public spaces — streets, parking lots, alleys, sidewalks, paths, riverfronts, parks, plazas,” the plan starts out. “More than 30 percent of downtown Brattleboro is public space. All kinds of people, at different times throughout the day, pass through those public spaces for many reasons. But good public spaces are characterized by the presence of people remaining when they have no pressing reason to stay.”
Brattleboro Planning Director Sue Fillion said the digitally interactive plan is organized as if one is walking or biking through downtown. It shows photographs of the corresponding sites as it lays out a strategy.
The goal of the plan is to make places people want to stay rather than pass through and attract them to the area.
“Good public spaces have real and measurable economic benefits,” the plan says. “They draw people and encourage them to linger, which helps sustain retail and service businesses. They enhance the desirability and value of surrounding properties.”
The plan was completed last summer but the Brattleboro Planning Commission wanted to review it in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, as public spaces were redefined. For example, restaurants and retail establishments moved some of their operations outside.
“We wanted to spend more time with it to make sure it made sense,” Fillion said. “We felt it did and in some ways, the pandemic made it more important to have good public space.”
Public outreach occurred in 2019 and included surveys, walking tours, demonstration projects and open studios. The goal was to collect ideas and hear about aspirations for downtown.
The commission described the resulting plan as “a starting point to help envision how to create an active, vibrant and sustainable downtown.”
“The Planning Commission,” Tom Mosakowski, commission chairman, said in a news release, “from its vantage point of setting the town’s overall policy and goals for land development and use and from considering past community input, has decided to preliminarily emphasize the plan’s following strategies: enhancing Bridge Street and the greenspace on Depot Street to coincide with the upcoming conversion of the current Hinsdale [N.H.] Bridge, enlivening Harmony Lot by shifting away from automobile dominance in this protected space well-suited for people, increasing public displays of art such as large-scale installations at Plaza Park, redesigning the library’s outside spaces, establishing a safe and sanitary permanent public restroom, and restoring part of Preston Lot to be recreational green space along the Whetstone Brook.”
Fillion said the plan was funded by a $22,000 Municipal Planning Grant from the state, which the town matched with an additional $18,100 that had been left over from a previous year’s Planning Services Department budget. PlaceSense, which worked with the town on updating its land use regulations back in 2015, was hired for the project.
During the summer, the commission and town Planning Services Department will seek feedback on the plan. It can be found on the Planning Services Department page on brattleboro.org.
Talks are just beginning with local groups such as the Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation. The coalition’s input is deemed valuable because its members will have suggestions to make downtown more bike friendly, Fillion said.
“People complain about the truck traffic or about being dominated by cars,” she said. “Public spaces are a way around that.”
She said members of the coalition are not just going on leisurely bike rides but commuting and running errands.
Fillion anticipates a discussion with the Select Board will give the commission an opportunity to champion some of the ideas in the plan, particularly with respect to Bridge Street and Depot Street after the new Hinsdale bridge is in use. The bridge “has the potential to be similarly re-imagined as a place for people to pause and take in the scenic views of the river with the juxtaposition of downtown to the west and Wantastiquet Mountain to the east,” according to the plan.
The plan proposes using town-owned land near the bridge for a riverfront bandshell or picnic pavilion and having performances on the lawn. It recommends making Bridge Street a woonerf, “a street with a distinctive single surface that is shared by motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.”
The Municipal Center lawn, Gibson-Aiken Center lawn, and Brooks Memorial Library terrace and garden are identified as potential places for parks. Events and performances are encouraged on the Whetstone Pathway after some aesthetic improvements are made.
Focuses in the plan include balancing needs of pedestrians and bicyclists versus spacing needs, reallocating space in rights-of-way to widen sidewalks, and addressing lighting and vegetation.
More public art is encouraged. The town should “formalize it policies and strategies for selecting, funding and exhibiting public art,” the plan states.
Other suggestions involve removing several on-street parking spaces Elliot Street and High Street, and replacing them with a two-way bicycle track. Regarding Harmony Lot, the plan says a plaza space could be made along the rear facades of the Main Street buildings, which would preserve access by service vehicles while creating shared space that could be used for outdoor seating or dining.