Better Block Challenge lauded by locals

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BRATTLEBORO — Alleyways, bicycles and books.

Those are themes of proposals selected to receive funding through the Better Block Challenge, which sought out pop-up projects to add life to underutilized or unwelcoming spaces downtown.

"We had a great response," Town Planning Director Sue Fillion said Wednesday during a special Brattleboro Planning Commission meeting. "We had 12 applications come in, so this is tough."

The challenge had been announced last month and temporary projects will be installed from Sept. 20 to 22. The commission unanimously approved three proposals: Temporary bicycle lanes on Flat Street with a party to showcase the lanes and a "revitalized alley" between the Brattleboro Transportation Center and Vermont Center for Photography; StoryWalk, which will celebrate literature and smalltown Main Street; and the transformation of "bleak alley" into "an inviting space" out of a dark alley by A Candle In The Night and In-Sight Photography Project on Main Street.

Brandy Saxton, of PlaceSense, said a budget of $1,500 will be spread equally between the projects. Her group was hired by the commission to work on a downtown design plan to improve circulation and access for pedestrians and bicyclists, and incorporate "green" stormwater practices.

The Brattleboro Coalition for Active Transportation proposed the creation of "pop-up bicycle lanes" on Flat Street from Elm Street to Main Street and a Sept. 20 street party with food vendors and live music. Downtown Brattleboro Alliance has organized ongoing efforts to clean up the nearby alley.

The bike lanes are meant to promote safety, encourage more biking downtown and fight climate change.

"Choosing to ride a bike is a way to decrease the use of fossil fuels and conserve energy," according to the application. "We think of human powered or 'active transportation' as a renewable energy source."

StoryWalk, proposed by Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica and DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin, will have a tale unfold via "colorful stations" along Main Street with an outdoor seating area to invite conversations about reading or other cultural topics. There will be snacks, books to read to children and an art installation where participants write their favorite book or quote from literature.

Local artist Cynthia Park-Houghton is expected to weave fabric strips into the installation, which will be built off a metal barrier along the edge of the sidewalk in front of the library. It is to remain indefinitely in place.

The project is meant to encourage expression, walking downtown, appreciation of literature and library use. It also will "bring attention to the underused, overlooked garden area at the library and will offer use of the outside paved space via cafe seating, which will continue to be available during open hours," according to the application.

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The alleyway project on Main Street is envisioned to be "a permanent improvement" involving collaboration among groups such as Brattleboro Bicycle Shop, Penelope Wurr, Mitchell Giddings Fine Arts, In-Sight, A Candle In The Night and Austin Design.

"We hope to have student art hanging from the walls and greenery along the edge of the alley which would help the space to come alive," Barbara Walsh, co-owner of Brattleboro Bicycle Shop, wrote in the application. "On the weekend of the project opening, we would like to have music and food for a festive opening. Another element of the project would be to have better lighting down the alley to create a safer and brighter space at night."

The plan also is to see whether a signpost proposed by the Compassionate Brattleboro Committee can join the project. Directional panels with the distance, direction and flag of the country of "sister communities" would go on the lamp post in front of the River Garden. Brattleboro-area residents are communicating and collaborating with groups in El Salvador, Haiti, India and Kenya.

After receiving applications involving ways to use the yard in front of Centre Congregational Church on Main Street, Fillion said discussion about the property will be scheduled for the People for Places Charrette. The three-day event in October is meant to get consensus around proposed changes to public spaces and infrastructure that could appear in the plan being developed with PlaceSense.

Commission member Josh Steele called all 12 projects "very interesting." He singled out one proposal to have peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and other food served to people downtown.

"I thought that would be a lot of fun and a lot of people would show up," said Tom Mosakowski, commission member. "I'd definitely grab a sandwich."

Commission Chairwoman Felicity Ratte suggested it might be a good project for the town to provide start-up funds as it had been envisioned to grow into a more frequent program. The proposal came from Street People in Service to a Better Brattleboro, which described itself as "a group of Brattleboro residents, some of whom do not have a place to live."

Loaves & Fishes had agreed to serve as fiscal agent for the project, according to the application, and Latchis Arts agreed to provide tables and store durable supplies. Brattleboro Food Co-Op was said to be considering providing food storage space.

Commissioners encouraged Shawn D. Jones to continue pursuing his project, which would add a range of different activities to the community. The list on the application included laser tag and volleyball.

Once teenagers turn 17, Jones said, they do not have as many activities available to them. Commissioners recommended Jones speak with the town's Recreation and Parks Department about offering new programs.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.


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