MANCHESTER — With a hint of nostalgia in her voice, Linda Krob described a typical Thursday night scene in the 1960s, when people flocked to downtown Main Street.
“It was just a meeting place. There would be so many people there – teenagers, parents. It was just a big part of our lives back then,” Krob said.
Krob said she was a teenager and didn’t have a lot of money at that time, which made it difficult for her to buy anything while shopping. But that didn’t matter, she says, because back then downtown was the place to be.
City officials hope to restore that feeling and bring people back downtown. They recently unveiled a proposed project that they hope will rejuvenate the Main Street corridor between Center Street and Hartford Road and change the way residents interact with downtown.
The plan would reduce the width of the carriageway, add space for cyclists and pedestrians, and replace traffic lights at the north and south ends of the city center with roundabouts.
Although the concept plan is still in its infancy – the project is not yet funded – its implementation could mark the most transformative change to the downtown area since the district’s inception and help it once again become a vibrant center. from the community.
“Downtowns are kind of a hot commodity right now, and we’re blessed with one of the best views of Main Street,” said Gary Anderson, director of planning and development. economic. “It’s a historic downtown that functions as the center of the community.”
The Manchester City Center Improvements Project builds on at least 10 years of planning and community engagement initiatives. It is inspired by the Complete Cities policy, which aims to create streets that are safe, practical and accessible to everyone, regardless of their mode of transportation.
Presented to the board of directors in January, the project would reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to three: a northbound lane, a southbound lane and a center left-turn lane.
One of the main objectives of the project is to improve the safety of all those who move through the city centre. City engineer Jeff LaMalva, who helped outline the plan to administrators, said roundabouts reduce injuries and fatalities at intersections because drivers are forced to slow to about 15 mph when driving. they enter the roundabout.
Accidents occur frequently in this area, officials said, and fatal crashes have occurred at downtown intersections.
“All accidents that happen (at a roundabout) are slow speed angle collisions, as opposed to someone starting a traffic light and getting T-boned, or someone driving through traffic” , said LaMalva.
The roundabouts would also include “bypasses”, which are separate bypasses that allow vehicles to turn right without having to cross the central area of the roundabout. Ramp lanes are an efficient traffic flow solution, LaMalva said.
By reducing the number of traffic lanes, the project would open up space for other potential opportunities, such as a bicycle path, more programmable space in front of businesses and the transition from corner parking to parallel parking. All work would take place within the city right-of-way.
Some residents said they were skeptical about certain aspects of the project. Resident Biff Melon, 71, said he had ‘no problem with any rotary or general improvements to our downtown area’. Melon said his main concern was the restriction of traffic flow resulting from the narrowing of traffic lanes.
Other residents fear that emergency vehicles will not be able to navigate the area. But Tim Bockus, who is the director of public works, said the city corresponded with public safety officers to make sure the road was wide enough for fire trucks and police cars to pass.
Bockus also said the project aims to improve traffic flow and maintain safety by incorporating new traffic lights that communicate with each other to keep traffic moving at a steady pace. Compared with the old traffic lights which work independently, the new synchronized signals could relay traffic information to each other and allow them to adjust their timing.
Similar traffic lights have been operating at the intersection of Buckland and Pleasant Valley Roads for about a year, and “we’ve seen a 40% reduction in vehicle accidents” since then, Bockus said.
“The ultimate time to get from one end (of the corridor) to the other will probably be about the same, it’s just going to be a slower pace,” LaMalva said.
The downtown area has not seen major renovations in over 30 years. In 1990, a major city center scheme made major changes to infrastructure but failed to achieve the transformation goals envisioned in the Manchester City Center Improvement Scheme, Anderson said.
LaMalva said the downtown traffic lights are among the oldest in the city and the streetlights will also need to be replaced very soon. With the area in need of a makeover, officials said they believe now is the right time to leverage the infusion of federal and state funding that has been a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with all of these financial opportunities at our fingertips,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to replace all the signals, replace the lighting, those are big dollars. So we can either just replace them or take advantage of some of these other opportunities and make it a transformative project.
Anderson said the city recently applied for two state grants, one through the Department of Economic and Community Development and the other through the Capitol Area Council of Governments. There is also the possibility of putting money from the American Rescue Plan Act towards the project.
Integrate community input
Officials stressed that the process is still early and no final decision has been made on which features will be included in the final design of the project. A loose schedule listed on the city’s website indicates the project launches in the spring of 2024.
Over the past decade, the city has conducted various surveys asking community members how they would like to see the downtown area improved. Common responses included more public seating, better connectivity, and a desire to make Main Street more walkable.
Officials said they tried to incorporate as much community feedback as possible into the plan.
“We’ve done that over time and we think it’s an opportunity to energize those efforts and develop a project that does that on a much larger scale,” Anderson said.
Many community members said they supported the project’s downtown redesign.
Bob Sulick, owner of Mulberry Street Pizza on Main Street, said the project would make the area look more open and friendly. It’s been “really difficult to bring retail to downtown,” Sulick said, and the new design could help attract customers who find the area easier to navigate.
Sulick said the scheme could also make the city’s two biggest events – Cruising ‘on Main and the Manchester Road Race – even more attractive.
“I think it’s a very positive step and a wise use of our money,” Sulick said.
Aaron Schevola, 42, who lives o
ff Main Street, said while he wasn’t sure about the move to parallel parking, he was excited about some of the changes, such as increased outdoor dining space.
“I would welcome that,” Schevola said, referring to the transformative nature of the project. “I go up and down Main Street often – it’s a throwback to early Americana when Main Street was the place to go.”
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Austin Mirmina covers Manchester and Bolton.