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Bethel Uses Traffic-Calming Devices to Make Downtown Pedestrian Friendly

  • Andrew Howard, owner of Team Better Block, measures the distance of the road on Main Street in Bethel, Vt., on May 15, 2018. The installation of the bulbouts aims to slow down traffic. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Rebecca Stone, of Bethel revitalization initiative, speaks to a group during a community meeting at Arnold Block in Bethel, Vt., on May 15, 2018. Stone presented on Bethel's ongoing campaign of beautification and revitalization since Tropical Storm Irene. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Allen Batton, left, of Town of Bethel, and Timothy Dubois, of Williams Garage, work a corner piece of a bulbout or curb extension in place on Main Street in Bethel, Vt., on May, 15, 2018. The curb extensions were put in place to slow down traffic and keep people from parking on certain areas of the street. (Valley News - Carly Geraci) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Bethel — The people pushing Bethel’s revitalization efforts say they’re happy with the progress they’ve made over the last couple years, but think they could go a bit farther — that is, farther into the street, with a new-to-Vermont traffic calming device called a bulb-out.

Bulb-outs look a bit like sidewalks, but they’re made of interlocking pieces of rubber. They narrow the travel lanes, which slows passing motorists, and also provide a spot for pedestrians to stand while waiting for a chance to cross from one side of Bethel’s newly vibrant downtown to the other.

On Tuesday morning, as workmen used drills with extended bits to install two of the bulb-outs on Main Street, there were ample signs of commerce and energy. A worker in a denim jacket used a squeegee to clean a storefront, while a delivery driver used a hand truck to wheel cases of ice tea and lemonade into the Cockadoodle Pizza Cafe. Meanwhile, volunteers with the Bethel Revitalization Initiative used wheelbarrows to cart bags of dirt to planters outside the commercial buildings.

The bulb-out installation was part of a day of activities hosted by the BRI that included a community lunch, speech-making and a tour of some of the downtown’s beautification projects, including a mural of rainbow brook trout on the retaining wall at the intersection of routes 12 and 107, which was created last year under a $15,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Council.

That type of bustle and energy haven’t been visible in Bethel for a long time.

A decade ago, “it was pretty dead,” said Jason Glynn, a Stockbridge, Vt., electrician who was taking a break on Main Street from his Bethel-based job.

But over the past several years, the BRI has been driving the conversation on how to spiff up Main Street, and has embarked on a variety of projects to beautify and bring life to the row of storefronts, which is dominated by a couple of large mixed-use buildings known as blocks.

The effort includes the bulb-out installations, which were funded with a grant from Montpelier-based AARP Vermont. Project liaison Kelly Stoddard Poor said the project is a first for the state.

“We want people to be able to age in place, and a big piece of that is mobility,” she said. “When we can calm the traffic and give people other options to get around outside of their car, it’s really great.”

Stoddard Poor said the installations are a low-cost way for towns to comply with Act 34, a “complete streets” law signed into law by former Gov. Peter Shumlin in 2011. The law requires the state and town officials to consider the needs of bicyclists, pedestrians and public transit users when renovating or building roads.

“I personally would love to see these bulb-outs catch on in other communities across the state,” she said.

In the wake of the public-funded grants, private investment dollars are starting to materialize. Just weeks ago, the Arnold Block was purchased by Lisa Warhol, 55, her husband Tom Warhol, and married artists Lindley Brainard and Lylee Rauch-Kacenski, who live on the premises.

Inside the Arnold Block, which hosted the community luncheon, Lisa Warhol showed off meeting and events rooms, a new yoga and dance studio, a commercial kitchen for food entrepreneurs, and a cluster of bottom-level offices that are being rented to a handful of freelancing professionals.

“We still have space, but we’re already meeting our mortgage and utilities, so that’s a measure of success right there,” Warhol said. “Just in our second month, we’re meeting our needs and we’re able to stay open.”

One of the half-dozen or so offices is shared by an editor, a writer, and a health coach. The editor, Sheila Trask, said that after three years of working at home, she had jumped at the chance to move into a more social setting to do her work.

“I’m a lifelong Bethel (resident). I’m very excited,” she said. “There’s a lot of energy going on.”

Warhol said the Arnold Block is just one of a series of properties that have changed hands in recent years along the strip, with new owners investing time and resources that they expect will be paid back by a new wave of renters and customers.

“We dove in headfirst,” Warhol said. “It’s amazing to see all of the dominoes falling.”

Over the past few years, Brad Andrews bought Mills Hardware, an insurance agency bought a residential house across the street, and Kevin Barry bought the Blossom Block, which just welcomed a newly opened salon run by Leah Crowley. Meanwhile, the former Bethel train depot is about to get new life as Babe’s Bar, which Warhol said is expected to open sometime in the next couple weeks.

The bulb-outs are a key piece of the puzzle, said Sarah Roberts, 28, who has been Barry’s partner for the past five years.

“There are certainly people who speed through town,” she said. “Our car mirrors have had some close calls. Kevin’s has been hit.”

She hopes the bulb-outs will help.

“Even though some people are skeptical that these are actually going to slow down traffic, we’ve seen it work,” she said.

That was in September 2016, when some temporary bulb-outs were installed for a month, during which time BRI measured the impact on traffic speed.

The group found the average speed on Main Street dropped from 27 to 15 miles per hour. The slower traffic also reduced the noise levels, from 80 decibels (described as the volume of an alarm clock) to 60 decibels (the volume of a quiet library).

Even so, the idea of bulb-outs has met with resistance, said Andrew Howard, 42, co-founder of Team Better Block, the Dallas-based company that was hired to help move Bethel toward a more livable (and commerce-friendly) downtown.

“We’ve come to think of the street as our own personal property. But really, streets are our biggest public space. Even bigger than the national park system,” Howard said. “(A bulb-out) helps you ease into it, because it’s temporary, and you can remove it if it doesn’t work. But we find that most of the time, it stays.”

Howard said the bulb-outs, which retail for about $1,200, can be removed for winter plowing, but they can also be left in and plowed over, or equipped with heating systems to melt the snow.

He also said that when community-led downtown revitalization efforts fail, it’s often because they’re stymied by local governments, when town planners with bruised egos withhold or slow project permitting. But Julie Hinman, of BRI, said that in Bethel, both the Selectboard and town staff have been supportive.

On Main Street, the bulb-outs garnered mixed reviews.

“I don’t know if that’s a good spot for it,” said Luke Campisi, noting that people with handicaps sometimes parked there — illegally — to run into the Mascoma Savings Bank.

But Barbara Hart, of Bethel, who came downtown to do some banking herself, said she welcomed the bulb-outs, which complemented BRI members’ broader revitalization efforts. “They’ve done a lot,” she said.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.