In the following interviews, The Bridge asked a range of people—architects, planners, artists and others—to describe Montpelier as it is today, then to look beyond the present moment and share their dreams of what Vermont’s capital city could one day become.
compiled by Amy Brooks Thornton and Nat Frothingham
Irene Facciolo architect, and former member
of Montpelier Planning Commission
Irene Facciolo would like to “close State Street from Elm Street to Main Street” at least once a week to create “an eddy in the center of town. “The town is lacking a quiet center,” she said.
If State Street were closed Saturdays, she’d like to bring the farmers’ market even more into the center of town, onto the street. It’s such a vibrant experience and so well attended, she argues, it should be celebrated even more.
Facciolo is concerned about the intersection of Barre and Main streets, which she believes is only going to become more congested with the inevitable increase of development on Barre Street. She suggests taking down the beverage store and creating a road going over the bridge behind the beverage store. This would also remove traffic from the center of town.
If she were to think big, Facciolo would “bring the train back into the center of town” and put the train station back close to where it was, near Sarducci’s. “What people love about this town is that it’s walkable” Facciolo said. “The more transportation options downtown the better.”
Another of Facciolo’s dreams would be to have a “tourist train” that would travel between Montpelier, Waterbury and Stowe. “It would help the tourist industry” by providing “another thing to do for the tourists,” she said. “It would help fund the redevelopment of the train station downtown.”
She is hopeful for more occupied space downtown, more stores, more pop-up galleries and weekend shops. She’d also like to see the bike path between Montpelier and Barre improve to create a better connection between the two towns and to provide “a really nice route” for those who commute by bike to Montpelier.
Facciolo’s “total fantasy” dreams? “To have a walkway next to the river, or cantilevers over the river. Having the two rivers in town and not seeing them most of the time is,” she said, “a big void. It would be definitely nice to celebrate the rivers more.” One way to do this, she imagines, is to take down the DMV building and build “a green space . . . from the State House park, which is so used and loved, all the way down to the river.” But she’d leave the heating plant—“a park that connects to the river.”
Facciolo would get rid of the meters. “I can’t stand meters downtown . . . It’s just not that friendly,” she said. She points out that Montpelier doesn’t really make money off the meters; they just pay for the parking enforcement officers. The parking meters are there to keep people from parking there all day. However, drivers are frustrated by the meters and the tickets and, she thinks, are going to go to the Barre-Montpelier Road: “They’re going to go to Panera Bread!” She suggests we enforce a two-hour limit by marking the tires, which they do in other cities, and build a public garage.
She also points out that the city is sending a double message: The town talks about how pedestrian friendly it is, but they don’t put their money where their mouth is because they don’t take care of the sidewalks in the winter. “The sidewalks are definitely not taken care of enough for pedestrians. We are open all year-around,” she said. “[We have to do] anything to encourage people to be downtown. We’ve already got a great city center; it’s just recognizing the things that are important and enhancing them more.”
Scott Crocker sculptor, Plainfield
Scott Crocker would like to create an artway. Along the artway, there would be “things to be viewed and discovered . . . And discussed. Like Storm King [the sculpture park in New York] but more intimate . . . and much more urban.”
“By the river there could be some sculpture installations, downtown by the bridges there could be some sculpture applied” to the pedestrian bridges,” said Crocker. “It needs to . . . draw you in with arches and doorways, inspiring and interesting things to view.” He envisions “artistic sculptures and installations along the path, artistic seating and picnicking areas, or lookouts over the river.” The artway would need a hub, so “you could park and then take your bike or walk from there.”
Crocker calls Montpelier the city of bridges. It “has the resource of the river and a lot of existing bridges where you could connect walkways and bike paths incorporating the bridges” into the artway, he suggests. The bridges themselves could be artistic, perhaps by creating a competition to decorate the bridges like the sculpt cycle idea. “Each bridge could be a different theme,” he said.
He points out that this would also celebrate the region’s history of sculpture and utilize the “incredible granite sculptors in the area, incredible metal workers and metal sculpture” in the area.
Ultimately, the artway, would “create a destination similar to the [Burlington] waterfront or the Church Street marketplace . . . not just about shopping. It’s a place to go and walk, an open space.” It would “bring people in from outside of town, and give a reason to the visitors to stay downtown for a longer period of time.” They wouldn’t just “drive through and take a picture of the capitol.”
Gwendolyn Hallsmith director of Montpelier
Planning and Community Development
City planning and development chief Gwen Hallsmith fixed her attention on a part of downtown Montpelier that can easily be described as already congested and confusing and could become even more so once improvements to the Carr lot have been completed.
That part of downtown is roughly defined on the south by Berlin Street, which becomes River Street, (Route 2) and Northfield Street (Route 12). Then there’s the Main Street Bridge and Main Street itself beginning at Shaw’s supermarket on one side of the street with Sarducci’s restaurant on the other.
But that’s not all. There’s Stone Cutters Way, which carries car and foot traffic both into Main Street and away from downtown. There’s traffic entering and leaving both Shaw’s parking lot and M&M Beverage, as well as the parking lots behind M&M and the Main Street commercial and retail blocks. Then there’s what Hallsmith calls “the failed intersection at the end of Barre Street” with car traffic often backed up as it waits to enter Main Street.
As if this confusing traffic and pedestrian scene was not complicated enough already, Hallsmith notes that “you’ve got a train in the mix” as the railway tracks cross Main Street.
These complications will intensify once the Carr project is completed. The project calls for a transit center facing Taylor Street. It also calls for extending the bike path by constructing a new bike path bridge across the North Branch. Once the bike path bridge is completed, the project plan is to tear down the M&M Beverage building so that bike and pedestrian traffic can enter Main Street from the M&M location. That added bike and foot traffic could intensify the complications we face today.
Hallsmith shared two ideas that could relieve the traffic quagmire on this part of Main Street and the Main Street Bridge. First, she suggested that we take another look at constructing a new roundabout on the Berlin Street side of the Main Street Bridge, where Routes 2 and 12 converge. The roundabout proposal has already been examined by one of the top roundabout designers in New England. “They said [a roundabout]) would work there,” Hallsmith said.
Hallsmith’s second idea was proposed some years ago by landscape architect Bob White, namely to build a cantilevered walkway shaded by trees out over the Winooski River on the Berlin and River streets side of the Winooski. “It would be an expensive project,” said Hallsmith. “I don’t know where we would get the money.”
But if such a walkway could be developed along Berlin and River streets, it could help integrate that side of the river with downtown. “Right now,” Hallsmith observed, that side of the river “feels like a strip.”
Hallsmith believes that a nice, separated, cantilevered walkway would be a great way to increase bicycle and pedestrian safety. As things stand now, Berlin Street, as it climbs the hill toward the hospital, “feels completely separated from downtown.”
“It’s really close to downtown,” said Hallsmith about the substantial neighborhood on both sides of Berlin Street. But it doesn’t have to be that way. “If we had more pedestrian access,” she said, “we would have more foot traffic downtown.”
Tom Leytham architect and artist, Montpelier
Montpelier artist-architect Tom Leytham describes Montpelier as “a heat island.” Leytham, who lives outside town at the top of Terrace Street, travels downhill to work in Montpelier, and he has measured a consistent 5-degree temperature difference from the top of Terrace Street to downtown Montpelier, both summer and winter.
This temperature difference, Leytham believes, can be explained by trees and vegetation at the top of Terrace Street, whereas there is a crying need for more shade trees in downtown Montpelier, where paved surfaces—parking lots and streets—prevail.
He grants that trees in downtown Montpelier have to fight off cars, vandals, salt and hard, impermeable surfaces. But porous paving systems are available, which allow water to get into the ground. “It’s a hard surface, but it’s porous. It’s being used for parking lots. I’m sure it costs,” he said.
“We’re treating the river very much like a dump for parking now,” said Leytham, who decries the continuous parking lots from Bailey Avenue to Taylor Street.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. “Look at Burlington. Look at the boathouse,” he said. When plans for the Burlington waterfront were developed, a decision was made not to park cars against the Lake Champlain shoreline. “They’re not squandering it or parking cars up against it,” Leytham said.
Speaking about Montpelier, Leytham said, “Look how delightful that little park beside Christ Church is. It’s a haven. There’s an arts [performance] program there in the summer.”
But the Christ Church park is more an exception than the rule. “Underneath the Rialto Bridge,” said Leytham, “right now it’s a parking lot.” Behind the commercial and retail buildings on both sides of Main Street are more parking lots. And alongside the North Branch behind Aubuchon Hardware are 2,000- to 3,000-gallon propane tanks.
Whatever happened to the long-ago plans in Montpelier calling for walkways, bike paths and pocket parks from the Rialto Bridge along the North Branch? Leytham asked. Those paths could enable people to “follow the North Branch and go all the way to the rec field,” he said.
On a recent trip to Montreal, Leytham enjoyed biking along the Lachine Canal, a bike path that runs from the Old Port at Montreal to Lake Saint-Louis. The path is 12 miles long, and, said Leytham,“You only cross one street.”
Gregg Gossens architect, Montpelier
Montpelier architect Gregg Gossens has looked carefully at historic photographs of Montpelier. “If you look at the photos, it was so dense. This was a pretty dense community-industrial area. There were buildings behind buildings,” Gossens said. These old photographs show granite sheds, small manufacturing businesses, a grain warehouse and the like built all along both sides of the Winooski River. But that historic density no longer exists today.
When Gossens first came to Montpelier more than 30 years ago, he remembers an eating and drinking spot called the Roma Gardens on Barre Street. That’s gone now, and there were two other three-story brick buildings near the corner of Barre and Granite streets. “They got pulled down for some reason,” Gossens said. “A lot of this is now parking space, unfortunately.”
When asked if Montpelier’s historic density speaks to efficiency, he replied, “It sure does. We are an infinitely walkable community.” At the same time, during the 33 years he has lived in Montpelier, Gossens noted that there has been continuous talk about a parking problem.
“For some people,” he said, “parking is an on-the-ground problem. For others, it’s a perception problem. But now we need to resolve the differences between the two.” He’s convinced it’s time to stop talking and reach a community-wide vision about what to do. “It’s an overarching situation we need to put behind us,” Gossens said. “It would free up the community if we could put that problem to bed.”
Then Gossens raised another perennial issue, Montpelier’s riverfront: “For years we’ve talked about the Montpelier riverfront. There’s a 100 percent consensus that we need to take advantage of it. But we can’t have everything. We need to come into a common vision on that.”
As he talked, Gossens sounded a little bit like a town moderator who has heard the same people with the same arguments over and over again, talking an issue to death. At some point, it’s time to “call the question” and move forward.
“We are becoming an elderly, gentrified community,” Gossens said about Montpelier. “We can be a little stodgy and precious.” While he believes there’s nothing wrong about having an elderly generation, he feels it’s high time we embrace forward-looking ideas and “fold into the next generation” of younger people.
“I think we have plenty of ideas. Now we need to distill them down and come up with some priorities,” he said.