City solicits ideas for pedestrian improvements, basin master plan

VERGENNES — Vergennes residents this weekend can have a say on the future of their hometown, especially its downtown and Otter Creek basin — and a chance to see what Main Street bike lanes and sidewalk bulb-outs might look like.
As part of a larger, grant-supported effort to develop what officials call a “Vergennes Downtown-Basin Master Plan,” residents are invited to a pair of walks on Friday evening from the city green down to Otter Creek, and then on Saturday to demonstrations of how Main Street could be friendlier for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The weekend activities, said Vergennes Planning Commission Chairman Shannon Haggett, are part of an effort backed by an $87,000 Strong Communities, Better Connections grant intended to improve the city’s economy and quality of life by calming traffic and linking the Otter Creek basin with downtown.
Vergennes is serving as a pilot community for that new state grant program, and Haggett said state officials are invested in its success and have attended all of the city’s steering committee meetings.
“The state is actually taking a very close interest in all this,” Haggett said. “They’ve had input and oversight as we go through the process.”
The city effort grew out of the 2014 Community Visit sponsored by the Vermont Council on Rural Development. In those sessions residents chose as their top priorities improvements for walking, cycling, parking and public transportation; improving the city’s economy; and redeveloping the Otter Creek basin to include better public access.
“It all developed out of the wish list at the community visit day,” Haggett said. “It makes a lot of sense for people who come to visit via boats to be able to come upstreet and visit downtown and benefit from that. If we can find a way to get them there safely and effectively through maybe some traffic-calming things, maybe some better routes, then we as an entire community benefit.”
Friday and Saturday’s activities will take a direct look at issues like those, including what City Manager Mel Hawley called “traffic-calming strategies” along Main Street that could create a friendlier atmosphere downtown for visitors and residents alike.
“(It) improves the community from a walkability and pedestrian safety standpoint,” Hawley said.
Boston’s Toole Design Group, the main firm running the master plan process, will host the walks. Panton’s David Raphael and Doug Kennedy Advisors of Norwich are also on board.
Both walks, part of what are being described as “Community Visioning Events,” will begin at 5:30 p.m. on the city green; participants are asked to spot staff members wearing yellow vests. Both walks will be a half-mile one way and will head south along Main Street.
One will head along Macdonough Drive toward Northlands Corps via Macdonough Park, and the other will cross the bridge and end at Falls Park. Walkers will be provided disposable cameras to take pictures of, according to the Toole Group, “what you like, what concerns you, and what are potential obstacles for different people, such as kids (and) people using mobility devices.”
Walkers will be asked to consider how to improve connections between the basin and downtown, what they see as barriers to economic development, and what they would like to see in the basin area.
Hawley said he is curious about that last question. 
“I think there may not be consensus as it relates to development of the basin. There are certainly people who feel it should be left in a more natural state, and others feel it should be more developed,” he said.  
On Saturday, Main Street demonstration projects will occur from 10 a.m. until noon.
They will include creation of temporary bike lanes, bulb-outs and pedestrian crossings and “refuge islands” by using duct tape, chalk and traffic cones. Officials also plan a pop-up kiosk in the basin to “solicit people’s vision for the Basin area.”
Hawley is eager to see the bike lane exercise, given that a positive result could put the city on the map for bicycle tours as well as make the downtown safer for all cyclists.
“There’s always been this feeling we can’t have bike lanes on Route 22A in Vergennes,” he said. “And our consultants are saying that’s not necessarily the case.”
Haggett is also curious about Saturday’s exercises.
“If we can tap into some of that expertise and make the whole downtown more bike- and pedestrian-friendly, we reap benefits for our own population as well,” he said.
Toole Group representatives have already done interviews on the green and in the basin, and as the process moves forward there will be other chances for public input.
Still, this weekend is important, Hawley said.
“We need to hear from people. We’re trying to develop a long-term plan,” he said. “It’s a real opportunity.”
The steering committee — it includes Mayor Bill Benton and other city council members as well as Haggett and Hawley — will listen as it works to finish a plan by this spring.
“We are hoping as part of that whole plan there will be some guidance and help on the next steps to make them a reality,” Haggett said.
Hawley said the finished document will not gather dust. Planners have just finished updating zoning regulations, and the commission’s next task will be to add specifics to the town plan, and those, critically, will be informed by the Vergennes Downtown-Basin Master Plan.
“I can tell you as a downtown we are virtually not eligible for downtown improvement grants at this point because we don’t have specific projects within our municipal plan,” Hawley said.
And there is money available from a variety of sources to pay for items identified in the ongoing process — Hawley rattled off nearly a half-dozen likely grant sources.
“There is funding for projects,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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