When Brandon’s new town plan was drafted several years ago, walkability was one of the major assets that residents cited. Historic development of Brandon has kept the original village compact, and new housing on Mt. Pleasant and along the spoke streets radiating out from downtown also tend to be small and close together. The downtown shopping area has all the necessities within walking distance, including a supermarket, pharmacy, hardware store, library, three banks, a post office, and pizza and Chinese take-out restaurants.
However, the quirky nature of Brandon’s early historical growth along the Neshobe River and Otter Creek has created real challenges for pedestrians. Brandon developed along not one but two town greens, each anchored by a mainstay church of the community. The first church organized in Brandon was the Congregational Church, which stands at the intersection of Center, Park, and Carver streets on a slight rise opposite what is now Gazebo Park.
With its wide street and deep lots laid out specifically for militia drills, Park Street was and still is a highly valued residential strip, and a favorite block for dogwalkers, tourists and foot commuters to downtown. Park Street connects downtown Brandon to Forestdale, which for economic reasons developed a mile to the east although Forestdale is part of the Township. Park Street also leads to the road over the Brandon Gap and to the Post Road — now McConnell Road — from the days before Route 7 that existed as the main link between Brandon and points south.
For the first thirty years or so, the town’s Baptists worshipped down the block from the Congregationalists on Park Street, but by the 1820’s, they had enough money to build their own, equally impressive church at the intersection of Grove (now part of Route 7 North), Pearl and Champlain Streets, opposite Triangle Park. Pearl Street was also designed for militia drills and livestock herding, so it too was wide, with deep lots, fenced yards, and impressive homes. Further south, it intersected the old military road that Lord Jeffrey Amherst had first laid out in colonial times to link Crown Point Fort and Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain to Fort #4 on the eastern banks of the Connecticut River. It also boasted the nearest covered bridge crossing Otter Creek as well as links to Florence and the important network of mills on Hawk’s Hill behind what is now Otter Valley Union High School. Meanwhile, Champlain Street followed Otter Creek all the way to Sudbury,where it too intersected the Crown Point Road, and Grove Street was and still is Brandon’s main link to Leicester’s four corners and points north.
Downtown Brandon rapidly filled in the space between these two anchor church buildings. Merchants, mills, and factories sprang up along the banks Neshobe River, while some of Brandon’s most impressive homes were built by real estate speculator John Conant in the downtown that bears his name.
Yet the result of this two-green layout meant Brandon’s downtown carved a sinuous and ultimately somewhat treacherous path for pedestrians. The real blow to pedestrian safety, however, was the advent of the automobile. As service stations and a car dealership sprang up in downtown Brandon in the early to mid-1900’s, Brandon’s beautiful granite and marble curbing and sidewalks were cut away altogether in some places so that cars could easily enter and exit. Blind turns along Brandon’s downtown winding path meant that today, even well marked crosswalks are dangerous to navigate. And once Route 7 became the main North-South State highway, it was progressively widened so that there are stretches of Brandon’s downtown where the sidewalk is merely a suggestion painted onto the same asphalt surface as the road as it wends its way through town. Cars often have the unfortunate habit of driving a leisurely ten or twenty miles above the speed limit, and forget the state law to yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks that need to be repainted after each winter.
Unfortunately, because these pedestrian dangers exist along both sides of the downtown sidewalks, there is no way to get from one end of downtown to another where pedestrians trump cars. Because I have three young children and we walk or ride bikes and scooters all over town, I may be one of the few Brandon residents who appreciates the Omya trucks that make hundreds of trips each week through Brandon from the Middlebury quarry to the calcium carbonate crushing plant in Florence. One of the deals Omya made with the townships through which their trucks travel was to travel at 15 mph in order to reduce noise pollution. Omya trucks are, in fact, the most effective traffic calming device I have seen to date in any city or town I’ve lived in. And unlike the majority of drivers through town, they know where all the crosswalks are and actually yield to pedestrians as state law requires.
The real solution, of course, would be to install real sidewalks and curbing with a protective strip of vegetation—I would even be happy with gravel—between sidewalks and the streets of downtown. But with a Route 7 overhaul through downtown planned for 2013, and already 20 years overdue, a lack of local tax revenue and an unwillingness to maintain the sidewalks and curbs that Brandon already has, it appears that safe walkability in downtown Brandon will continue to be a goal on paper rather than a reality on the ground.