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Rules aim to get downtown Lebanon on its feet



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 13, 2019

LEBANON — City planners are proposing new rules intended to increase walkability and attract new business to the city’s downtown.

By creating a “Lebanon Downtown” zoning district, officials hope to adopt regulations that both encourage pedestrian access and ensure new buildings reflect the existing neighborhood.

The goal is to build shops with more windows, larger lawns and out-of-the-way parking lots so walkers and cyclists feel comfortable and welcome, said Ben Carlson, director of urban design for the Boston-based firm Goody Clancy, which is helping the city draft its downtown rules.

“The broader idea is to help make a more continuous, walkable network that feels safe but is also a fun place to walk,” Carlson said in a phone interview Monday.

The proposed rules, which will be discussed during a public forum Thursday, were born out of the city’s downtown visioning study, a yearlong effort that sought community input on the neighborhood’s future.

The study, completed in 2016, envisioned more walkways and pedestrian crossings through downtown and along the Mascoma River. Officials expect some form of the vision to be completed over the next two decades.

To meet those goals, planners are proposing “minor adjustments” to downtown zoning rules, Carlson said.

Draft rules call for an easing of minimum lot requirements so shops and businesses can build on smaller spaces. And parking rules would change with lots required either behind or on the side of buildings rather than in front yards or near the street.

Other regulations would increase the “transparency” of new buildings so that at least 50% of retail storefronts are windowed.

“There’s a real emphasis on the first story and how it works with the sidewalk and the street edge,” Carlson said.

Developers also would be allowed to request larger buildings reaching 65 feet, up 10 feet from the current regulations. However, the top floor of those tall structures would be set back from the facade, meaning those on the street would see less of it, Carlson said.

When pedestrians can see inside shops and are less distracted with traffic, they feel safer and are more encouraged to frequent businesses, Carlson said. The proposal is designed to create that “more pleasant walking experience,” he said.

The proposed rules were unveiled to the Planning Board in April and received a “generally positive” reception, said David Brooks, Lebanon’s planning and zoning director.

There were some concerns that the rules wouldn’t affect West Lebanon, which now shares the same regulations as downtown, Brooks said.

“We want and hope and expect to do something similar for West Lebanon at some point,” he said on Monday.

But that would require West Lebanon to complete its own visioning study, a task that has been pushed back for years as the City Council attempts to clean up the Westboro Rail Yard.

The city plans to discuss the proposed downtown regulations during a forum scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at City Hall. People can find out more at lebanonnh.gov under the link titled “Downtown District Community Conversation.”

Following the forum, the rules will be brought before the full City Council in September, which is expected to take a formal vote in January.

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