By Mike Dunphy
It would be no surprise if the first public argument in Montpelier’s 231-year history was about parking, or hitching, rather. After years of agonizing hemming and hawing, the city finally stands on the precipice of realizing a possible solution with a proposed four-story, 360-spot parking garage that will be on the November 6 ballot. Specifically, voters are being asked to approve a $10-million bond to pay for construction of a garage that has been expanded from an earlier 220-space proposal that was to be built by the Bashara family to serve a new Hampton Inn and Suites, but which the Basharas said was too expensive for them to build themselves.
In addition to voter approval, the parking garage still needs a thumbs-up from the city’s design review committee and development review board, and it will get at least some limited review by the state. Montpelier resident Alan Goldman has officially requested that the garage project and others planned in the recently adopted downtown Tax Increment Financing (TIF) district be subjected to full Act 250 environmental review because of the size of the projects when taken together. City Manager Bill Fraser told The Bridge that the city does not believe “any link whatsoever exists between the TIF financing tool and this, or any other, development project.” Goldman’s request for “jurisdictional opinion” was filed with the District 5 Environmental Commission, The Times Argus reported Tuesday, October 16.
If and when it is built, the garage’s 23,265-square-foot footprint will have a lasting effect on the downtown, particularly when considered in conjunction with the Hampton Inn, the Transit Center, and other expected developments in the area. The ripple effects will be felt in all directions. What follows is a look at the expected changes and impacts in the surrounding neighborhood.
The Heney Lot
While the bulk of the proposed parking garage would be built on land owned by the Basharas and given to the city, a portion of it would extend onto the half-acre Heney lot, currently used for parking and the farmer’s market and owned by the Mary Heney Trust, of which Tim Heney is trustee. According to plans on the city website dated Sept. 26, the parking garage would come to within about 20 feet of the old “Garage” building behind Julio’s that is owned by Overlake Park, LLC, of which Jeff and Jody Jacobs are listed as trustees on the Secretary of State’s website.
Although empty now, a commercial tenant is said to be moving in soon and access appears to be squeezed, with a narrow 10-foot access lane to the parking area at the rear of the Overlake building running between the two buildings. Originally, access to the bike path was planned through the lane as well, but the architect now says that it may be impossible to provide that access due to an 8.5-foot gradient between the lot and the higher bike path. Instead, a bridge from the second floor of the garage to the bike path is being considered. An egress from the parking garage would empty out into the Heney lot to allow vehicles to travel to State Street but would only be used as an emergency exit.
The lot is managed by the City of Montpelier under a 49-year lease signed last year, according to Tim Heney, but any construction would require Heney’s approval. According to City Manage Bill Fraser, Heney has provided informal permission and legal documents are in preparation to formalize the agreement. “We do not anticipate any insurmountable problems,” Fraser explains. “Because of that there is no Plan B,” he said.
Ever since development plans began ramping up, the Capital City Farmers’ Market has seen the writing on the wall and has made significant efforts to get out of the Heney lot and find a new home. Indeed, at the start of May, the plan was to set up the market on State Street—an idea that was tried out during the fall of 2017. Changes to the layout, however, led to increased local opposition, which pushed the market back into the Heney lot for the summer.
With the help of Montpelier Alive, the market is now negotiating with all interested parties on a solution that will keep part of the market in the post-garage-reduced parking lot and extend the rest on to State Street, creating a hybrid. “It’s an evolution of an existing idea,” says Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive, “We are working through the details with the merchants and others to make sure it’s going to work and that we have a plan everyone can be excited about.” None of this has been set in stone yet, he notes, but “that’s what we are working toward right now.”
Christ Episcopal Church
Although the Christ Church “does not desire to take a position on the merits of this project,” according to a statement given to The Bridge, it could be impacted in several significant ways, as the new parking garage will come to within eight feet of its rear property line. In particular, church leaders are concerned about the impact on its plan to build low-income housing on the site of the current parish house.
“We want to be certain,” the statement reads, “that any large project behind the church building does not preclude construction of affordable housing on the church’s property, a project that has been under discussion for nearly three years.” While the garage could make a housing project less attractive to funders and potential tenants, by blocking all southward views and sunlight, as well as squeezing the space around it, it would not kill the project, church officials say.
The church also has special concerns regarding the impact on the current 150-year-old historic sanctuary and current church operations. The church is seeking a “memorandum of understanding” with the city, similar to one negotiated with the Bashara family, addressing issues such as stormwater runoff, loss of parking, management of the increased elevation of the church’s right-of-way, and the costs to the church of protecting itself from the impact of such a large project.
Although the parking garage is increasing in size, it has not affected the size of the planned Confluence Park at the junction of the Winooski and North Branch rivers. However, a four-story structure looming over it certainly changes the dynamics, making it “not as breathable, not as open as it might have been,” according to Tino O’Brien, chairman of the board of directors of the Vermont River Conservancy. “But it’s not a fatal flaw.” he said. “With some plantings and some design, the park can still live up to its potential.”
The Vermont River Conservancy has received a grant from the Canaday Family Charitable Trust to address the establishment of Confluence Park. The group is requesting proposals from architects to submit designs for what that park might look like. O’Brien’s main concern is about access to the park, particularly from State Street. On earlier blueprints there appeared a very narrow access, between the parking garage and the existing “Garage” building, but that appears to have been dropped. The access on the other (western) side between the parking garage and the proposed Hampton Inn is also narrow and canyon-like, he said. “I don’t think anybody has thought through the design of getting into the Confluence Park,” O’Brien said.
Traffic on Taylor and State Streets
Will new traffic coming to and from the hotel and parking garage snarl Montpelier’s streets even more? According to the “Proposed Capitol Plaza Hotel and Parking Garage Traffic Study” released on Oct. 11 by Resource Systems Group, big problems don’t appear in the cards, with the current Level of Service (LOS) to be more or less maintained at current service levels, which vary from “A” to “F” in the surrounding intersections at rush hours (the worst being the left turn off Taylor Street onto State Street, where the peak hour wait will increase from 62 seconds to 73 seconds, the traffic engineer said). This also means they won’t get better either, according to the report, but the net increase to traffic is less than people might expect, with a net gain of just 9 cars passing through the Taylor Street intersection with State Street west to east during the morning rush hour, and 11 cars in the afternoon, for example. “It’s how, relatively, is it an unacceptable decrease or degradation of that service level, and in this case, it doesn’t not appear to be,” said Public Works Director Tom McArdle.
Furthermore, McArdle points out, these numbers are worst-case scenarios and don’t include many mitigating factors, for example people waving cars in or gaps created by people parking down the street or crossing it at the intersections, and so “It functions a little better than what the numbers actually show.” He also notes that hotel guests usually check in around 3 pm and check out around 11 am. “That makes this impact less than what you would normally see from other uses.” Shopping hours on the other hand, do tend to coincide with peak-hour traffic, but shouldn’t impact it so much, with just 38 spaces to be used as pay-by-the hour spots for retail shoppers.
“Traffic is a lot like water,” McArdle says. “The analogy is that you add more traffic, or more water to the jug, it’s going to overflow. It doesn’t just back up and pile up, so people tend to find other routes around so that it overflows to other points.”
As for a future solution to improving service, McArdle favors installing a roundabout at Taylor and State in the future rather than any additional lights or stop signs. “In a roundabout, traffic can clear the intersection, allowing other maneuvers to take place that are able to freely move through it.”
With the Winooski and North Branch rivers butting up against the parking garage, there’s understandable concern about the impact on water quality. However, during the October 3 city council meeting, Fraser suggested that the garage might actually improve the situation, thanks to the design and Confluence Park. “Most of the land it’s on—not all—is currently asphalt and has no real treatment, so it just already sheds off into the river. The garage will also be impervious, but it will have some treatment systems in it to collect what runs down through the building and cleanse it, so while it won’t reduce the amount of flow to the river, it’ll probably be cleaner.”
That view is echoed (but not put forward) by Gregory Rabideau, owner of Rabideau Architects, who is designing the building. He confirms there will indeed be water-cleansing mechanisms, albeit out of sight. “We are designing systems to take water flows from the garage and scrub them of solids, such as cigarette butts, sand, gum wrappers, coffee, and the like,” Rabideau explains, “and to remove oil, distillates, and anything that may have dripped on the floor of the parking garage. Any kind of water that comes out of that garage will not go to the storm system, but a water treatment facility, so before it leaves the site, it’ll be scrubbed by a series of devices.” An example is a “cyclonic catch basin,” which spins the water in a way to push all the contaminants out of the stream.