Lebanon Unveils Plan to Remake City’s Downtown

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/3/2016 12:32:19 AM
Modified: 6/6/2016 11:24:30 AM

Lebanon — City officials hope a new vision for downtown unveiled on Thursday will spur development and encourage a more pedestrian-friendly marketplace, but it’s not clear all residents are on-board yet.

About 50 people gathered in Lebanon Opera House Thursday night to hear the proposed plan, which calls for restoring an old railroad tunnel for pedestrians and cyclists, erecting mixed-use buildings along the Mascoma River and allowing two-way traffic around much of Colburn Park. The plan also calls for construction of a parking garage behind City Hall and two new rotaries to better control traffic.

Consultants estimate the projects could take 15 to 20 years to complete and cost an estimated $6.8 million, but encouraged the council to look to grants, public-private partnerships and other funding methods to further its goals.

“The city has to be an active player in making this work,” said Geoffrey Morrison-Logan, a principal at the Massachusetts-based consulting firm Vanasse Hangen Brustlin.

The city cannot wait for a private developer to make the first steps, he said, but instead needs to be an integral part of pushing the plan forward.

Beginning at the Hanover Street and Route 120 intersection, the proposed plan calls for reconfiguring roads to make downtown more accessible, said city Planning Director David Brooks. That includes moving a stop sign at the intersection to allow vehicles on Route 120 to continue downtown without having to stop.

Moving south, the plan calls for “streetscaping,” dedicated bike lanes and bump-out crosswalks to slow traffic. The city also hopes to make navigating the Hanover and High Street intersection less confusing by creating a new roundabout.

In the downtown core, the plan proposes two-way traffic on West, South and East Park streets. An additional roundabout at the intersection of South Park Street and School Street would allow cars to turn around without having to traverse the entire Colburn Park area, Brooks said.

He said the old railroad tunnel will also be restored and used for the future Mascoma River Greenway, allowing pedestrians and bicycles a traffic-free path downtown. Restoring the tunnel is estimated to cost about $2 million, according to consultants. That’s about $200,000 more than plans to fill it in.

Development of mixed-use buildings is also planned for city-owned parking lots, and a new parking garage would make up for the lost spaces.

Brooks said previous surveys about downtown indicated development along the Mascoma River is important to many, but the amount of development will also depend on business owners in the Lebanon Mall, which could be displaced. He said the market and developers will have to determine to what level they will be a part of the redevelopment process.

If there’s little interest, it’s unclear what would happen to the proposed parking garage.

“The city’s probably not going to build that parking garage before there’s some indication that it’s really needed,” he said.

Morrison-Logan said downtown has the potential to attract business. He estimated the plan could attract 20,000 square feet of renovated space per year. Eventually, he said, increased tax revenue could exceed the project’s costs.

Some at Thursday’s meeting were wary of traffic changes and the notion of taking away downtown parking in favor of a garage.

“There is no parking in downtown Lebanon,” said Janice Morton, of Hanover Street.

She took aim at the plan’s proposed phasing, where 20 spaces would initially make room for a new building and seating along the riverfront.

“If you want to punt me out of Lebanon, then that’s what you’re asking for,” she said.

City Councilor Karen Liot Hill shared Morton’s parking concerns. As the owner of the Lebanon Diner, she relies on spaces near her businesses.

“Not all parking spaces are created equal,” she said, adding a parking space in a garage isn’t the same as one close to her business.

Residents at the city’s information tent during the earlier farmers market were more optimistic of the plan.

Lorraine Kelly, of West Lebanon, said she’s happy to see the plan keep the downtown rail tunnel. She’s a supporter of the Mascoma River Greenway, a rail trail that plans to connect downtown to West Lebanon. Upgrading the tunnel will allow the trail to continue on its intended path, rather than forcing it to share city roads.

“My concern was that they might come up with an alternative to put bicyclists on the streets again,” she said. “If this goes through, that’s not going to happen.”

Kelly’s also excited to see plans that open up access to the Mascoma River, making it a focal point to pedestrians and cyclists downtown.

“I’m pleased,” she said.

Helen Pembricks remembers being pregnant with her first daughter at the time of the 1964 fire that destroyed much of downtown. She lived across the Mascoma River then, but recalls grabbing a bag of clothes and evacuating the area with her husband.

Now, she lives in Rogers House and loves living downtown, with its central location and events like the farmers market.

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re thinking of different things for Lebanon,” she said.

Pembricks is especially happy to see the city renovating the tunnel. It’s was an unwelcoming place, she said.

“Right now, I wouldn’t go in (the tunnel),” she said. “It’s too dark.”

City officials will now take the public’s comments from Thursday’s forum and farmers market booth to create final report that will include marketing and financing strategies for downtown redevelopment.

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

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