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Lebanon officials hope reopening tunnel will aid downtown

  • From left, Josh Bulluss, of White River Junction, Vt., Jim Tessier, of Charlestown, N.H., and Scott West, of Claremont, N.H., with Blaktop, Inc., pave the pedestrian and bike tunnel underneath the Lebanon Mall connecting the Mascoma River Greenway and the Northern Rail Trail in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, June 21, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America — Alex Driehaus

  • From left, Jim Tessier, of Charlestown, N.H., Greg Hosten, of Springfield, Vt., and Scott West, of Claremont, N.H., with Blaktop, Inc., pave the pedestrian and bike tunnel underneath the Lebanon Mall connecting the Mascoma River Greenway and the Northern Rail Trail in Lebanon, N.H., on Monday, June 21, 2021. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report for America — Alex Driehaus

  • An undated aerial view of the downtown Lebanon, N.H., pedestrian mall. The area was reconstructed following a devastating fire in 1964. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/21/2021 10:00:04 PM
Modified: 6/21/2021 10:05:06 PM

LEBANON — City officials are preparing to reopen a key bicycle and pedestrian connection in downtown Lebanon, more than six years after structural problems forced its closure and led to wider discussions about the neighborhood’s future. 

The roughly 300-foot tunnel that runs underneath the Lebanon Mall will formally reopen Thursday, July 8 with a celebration that is expected to include a ribbon-cutting, a group dog walk and an outdoor concert. 

The festivities, advocates say, will usher in a new, safer route for those looking to traverse the downtown by bike or on foot.

It also could mean increased business for shops on the mall that saw sales slump during the more than year-long construction project. 

“It’s a much anticipated, hugely satisfying relief to see it all come together,” Paul Coats, director of Lebanon’s Recreation, Arts and Parks Department, said Monday. 

He said the tunnel will connect the 58-mile Northern Rail Trail with the Mascoma River Greenway, a 2.3-mile paved multipurpose path that runs from downtown to Glen Road in West Lebanon.

 Without the tunnel, Coats said, people have to walk or bike along Hanover Street and Route 4 to travel between the two paths, a difficult proposition for those who are new to the area. 

“There are either no road crossings or very few road crossings on the rail trail,” he said. “To suddenly come off that and have to navigate a busy street and the whole downtown area, it’s like why do that?”

The tunnel, which is nearly complete, starts in the parking lot behind River Valley Community College’s Lebanon campus and runs southwest to Hanover Street and a stone-covered trail area near Route 4.

It will feature a newly paved surface, lighting, public WiFi and a glass enclosure designed to provide natural light from the Lebanon Mall, City Engineer Brian Vincent said.

The $3 million project also involved the renovation of a plaza above the tunnel on the mall, new stairways and some added landscaping, he said.

While those are meant to attract people to downtown’s shops and restaurants, business owners say the mall was anything but attractive during construction.

“This corner was totally neglected by the city,” Rajesh Arora, co-owner of the Asian Super Store, said Monday.

He said that for about eight months, the only way to access his business was via the mall’s entrance on Park Street, making it difficult to draw in new customers who would otherwise use the parking lot off Hanover Street. 

Louiza Kritikos, who co-owns Lebanon Village Pizza, said she also struggled during the work, which claimed several nearby parking spaces for construction vehicles and supplies.

“At least it's open now and our deliveries can come through the back,” she said.

Businesses in 2014 lost access to 20 parking spaces above the tunnel after engineers found the structure was in “poor to very poor condition.” Then tension between the business community and city officials mounted in January 2020 when signs implying that the Lebanon Mall was closed to pedestrian traffic were installed, angering owners who said they were “blindsided.” 

The signs were removed, but another blow came when the Lebanon Diner, a mainstay on the mall for almost a decade, announced its permanent closure last June. At the time, the diner’s owners attributed the closing to financial difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, advocates for the tunnel say it will bring new people to the city and create a friendlier downtown. Before its closure in 2014, it was little-used and marred by graffiti. But now, the city’s Arts and Culture Commission intends to commission murals and promote art along the route. 

“It’s going to be incredible for the community to be able to get from one side of town to the other,” said Frank Gould, co-chairman of the Mascoma River Greenway Coalition.

Gould also pointed out that reopening the tunnel was favored by residents polled in Lebanon’s downtown visioning study, which came about after engineers determined it was dilapidated and in need of repairs. 

That study, completed in 2016, was commissioned to determine what to do with the tunnel and ultimately called for its rehabilitation. Engineers rejected calls to fill it in or abandon it for an alternative river walk. 

The visioning process also brought about other changes for downtown, including plans to redevelop the former public works facility at 20 Spencer St., and update downtown’s zoning rules. 

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




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