Lebanon Completes Vision for City

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/17/2016 11:01:31 PM
Modified: 11/17/2016 11:01:39 PM

Lebanon — More than a year after starting work on Lebanon’s downtown visioning study, a final report landed on the desks of city councilors this week.

In it, consultants recommend a plan over the next two decades to develop the area’s underutilized spaces, redesign traffic flows and even brand downtown to the outside world. But completion of the study resurrected a question the City Council needs to answer before moving forward — what to do with an abandoned rail tunnel running underneath the Lebanon Mall.

“I think the tunnel (and) current parking arrangement is a crisis,” Councilor Bill Finn said during Wednesday’s meeting. “There’s no way that we’re not going to be stuck with that (problem) for two winters, two holiday seasons, at least one tourist season if not more.”

The tunnel, which runs under downtown parking lots, was closed in 2014 after engineers determined it was dilapidated and in need of repairs. The subsequent closing of the tunnel, along with 20 spaces in the parking lot above it, was a primary driver for the visioning study, which was expanded to look at all of downtown.

While the final report calls for restoration of the tunnel as part of the future Mascoma River Greenway, some city councilors say they want to explore other options for the trail.

Geoffrey Morrison-Logan, a principal at the consulting firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, said his firm estimates it could cost around $1 million to re-route the trail along the Mascoma River, compared with $2 million for restoration work and $1.8 million to fill it in. However, he cautioned that a small river trail in the final report was intended to go hand-in-hand with the tunnel, not stand alone.

“We’ve seen many communities that have multiple ways of accessing around their downtowns and having connections to the riverfronts,” Morrison-Logan said. “This was intended to have both, not necessary one or the other.”

Consultants made very few changes to the report since producing an initial draft in October. Among them was language clarifying a stance that the tunnel should be repaired.

But councilors Clifton Below and Timothy McNamara floated a new idea on Wednesday, one that would see a city-owned parcel offered for sale alongside the former Shoetorium building at 39 Hanover Street.

The resulting sale to a developer would allow for more sustainable growth, McNamara said on Thursday, but would also mean the tunnel would have to be filled in because of the expected construction above it.

“The concept is that (the Shoetorium building) is on a very constrained lot,” he said. “It may be so constrained by the lot size and dimension that it would limit the potential for redevelopment of that site.”

Currently, it’s difficult to imagine the building as economically viable, McNamara said. But by doubling the size of its lot, there’s room to grow, he said.

“A larger footprint would make it easier to justify a development project,” said Robert Haynes, who owns the building.

Haynes, the executive director of the Green Mountain Economic Development Corporation, purchased the property with a business partner in 2015 for $425,000, according to city records. The 7,840-square-foot property is again on the market with a listing price of $700,000.

“My vision for the property would be something with apartment housing,” Haynes said on Thursday. “Adding more beds downtown would be very exciting to see.”

If the city were interested in making such a development possible, Haynes said he would endorse such a measure.

Supporters of the Mascoma River Greenway want the tunnel open, though.

The trail is expected to begin at the terminus of the Northern Rail Trail at Spencer Street and run for four miles into West Lebanon.

The tunnel is a key link for the trail as it travels between the two neighborhoods.

Some worry filling it in for such a project would create unsafe conditions where pedestrians and cyclists would share downtown streets with cars.

Frank Gould, co-chairman of the Mascoma River Greenway Coalition, said the public is supportive of the tunnel and expressed that through city surveys and at forums.

“It just seems to me that the tunnel is there, the possibility of the tunnel and the safety of the tunnel is paramount to getting people from (The) Woodlands, from Harvest Hill that wanted to come into town,” Gould told the council. “How do they get here if they’ve got to cross Route 120?”

Councilor Erling Heistad also worried about the area’s elderly population and the hardship they could face having to detour around the tunnel.

“I would think the safest, straightest way in this particular situation would be through the tunnel as opposed to going alongside the river,” he said.

Ultimately, city councilors agreed a decision about the tunnel should be made soon. McNamara said he would ask city staff to explore the different options in another study, which could be due in January.

Money for any resolution is unlikely to make its way into next year’s budget, though, McNamara said.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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