Council warm to a city hall plaza concept in Vergennes

VERGENNES — Vergennes City Council members on Tuesday reacted favorably to a proposal from Friends of the Vergennes Opera House president Gerianne Smart for a brick plaza in front of Vergennes City Hall. 
That plan includes a crescent-shaped “bulbout” to replace two parking spaces in front of the building. The theater’s renovated standing marquee would be placed on that bulbout, which would, like the plaza, be made of bricks that would match those used in other downtown streetscape projects in the past decade.
The marquee’s new site would give it greater visibility, Smart said, while the entire project would “put a bow on all of city hall.”
Vergennes City Hall holds the opera house on its second floor, and city offices and the police station on its first floor. Police will soon move out to a new North Main Street station, probably by early 2014.
The proposed plaza inside the sidewalk would be about 32 feet by 10 feet across the front of the entry stairway, with small extensions toward the building on either side of the stairs.
On the Main Street side of the sidewalk the bulbout would extend about 12 feet at its widest, in the middle where the marquee would be placed. It would extend about 30 feet in either direction from there, a little wider than the building itself, according to a drawing Smart provided.
Renovating the marquee, which has a clock and a light at its top, above the area reserved to promote events, would cost $12,500, Smart said. Green Mountain Power has donated $10,000 toward that project.
Smart said Friends of the Vergennes Opera House officials plan to sell naming rights to the bricks to support the project, a fundraising tactic that worked well during the renovation of Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.
“That money will at least pay for the materials,” she said.
Aldermen all said they approved of the concept, but said they would like to work out something to account for the two lost parking places.
“Put me down for a brick,” said Alderman Joe Klopfenstein, before adding, “I worry about the parking. The fewer people that cross Main Street, the better.”
Klopfenstein suggested a pedestrian-activated light that would allow them to cross safely to city hall from parking spots on the other side of Main Street.
Alderman Randy Ouellette said, “Having the marquee further out would be nice,” and he suggested 15-minute parking limits for nearby spots that would tend to keep them available for city hall visitors.
Alderman Lowell Bertrand also said he liked the project, and he noted that because now police cruisers typically park in those spaces they are rarely available to the public; therefore, he said, their loss would not be that great.
“It’s not used much for parking anyway,” Bertrand said.
Smart said FVOH and project designer Norm LeBoeuf hoped to offset the loss of the parking places by adding at least one handicap spot in the alley between city hall and the church next door. Smart said that space would offer easier handicap access to the building than the current curbside space.
City Manager Mel Hawley said such an arrangement would also have to be approved by church officials, however, and also said the project design would have to be careful not to have the marquee block sight lines from the alleys on either side of city hall.
“Vision is a concern,” Hawley said.
Hawley also cautioned the curb height at Main Street should not be higher than the standard seven inches to protect against falls.
Alderman Renny Perry said he would like to see plans include a spot where visitors could be dropped off safely. Perry also suggested replanting the trees now in front of city hall on the city green and replacing them with lower shrubs. But he spoke in favor of the concept.
“I think the plaza is a good idea,” Perry said. 
Perry also addressed city hall’s interior, saying to general council agreement that once police have moved to their new station what is now Chief George Merkel’s office should be turned over to the opera house for use as a ticket booth and office space, and what is now the patrol room could be meeting space for the city council. Aldermen in recent years have met in the city’s Green Street fire station.
Mayor Bill Benton said he sensed aldermen favored the concept, but that the parking questions should be addressed and cost estimates pinned down in the weeks to come. He suggested LeBoeuf and Smart should meet with city officials and go over parking options.
“I think there is a consensus to take it to the next step,” Benton said.
Smart said she would be happy to sit down with officials and tie up the loose ends.
“You’ve already started to come up with some solutions,” Smart said, “which is a great example of how well we work together.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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