By Carl Etnier
A public-nonprofit partnership is moving forward with plans for a new park in the center of Montpelier, at the confluence of the North Branch and the Winooski River. On the west side of the North Branch, the land is secured for the park, and the discussion is about overall design. On the other side, soon to be connected by a bicycle and pedestrian bridge, park advocates are also eyeing a “Confluence Park East” on riverfront land owned by the city. But they’re not the only ones drawing up plans for that plot.
The Vermont River Conservancy (VRC) approached the city in 2018, offering to use grant funding to study how to improve riverfront access and, specifically, suggestions for the city-designated Confluence Park to be built adjacent to the transit center that is now under construction at 1 Taylor Street.
Richarda Ericson, communications manager of the VRC, told people at a meeting about the project in December that VRC staff thought they’d just come up with the idea of a confluence park, but they were just the latest to think along these lines. “For about 25 years,” she said, “we’ve been talking about a confluence river park in Montpelier at this very spot.”
Now, a host of projects are being built or planned for the area—the transit center, the bike path bridge, a parking garage, and a new hotel. As part of the flurry of activity, the city council endorsed creating a confluence park as part of the transit center lot, with six planned parking spaces designated to instead become part of the future park. About a quarter-acre of land at the west side of the confluence is designated for the park.
In central Montpelier, the two rivers are often well hidden below steep banks at the edges of parking lots and storage areas. But in areas on which humans have turned their backs, other animals thrive. Ericson told the meeting attendees in December, “It’s a pretty incredible spot.” She said she’d recently seen a river otter when she went down to the confluence. She’s also seen a heron, and traffic sounds are hard to hear there. “It feels like a whole other world.” That’s why, she said, VRC wants people “to be able to experience that right by the river shore, rather than looking at it from up above.”
Milone & MacBroom, a consulting firm, has drawn up conceptual designs for what the VRC is now calling “Confluence Park West.” All three alternatives provide access to the river and a boat launch. One design features a performance pavilion and a lawn for events. Another is centered on a circular plaza with plantings in the middle. The third breaks the space up into smaller parklets.
Roy Schiff, a water resource scientist and engineer at Milone & MacBroom, as well as a member of the Montpelier Conservation Commission, told the December gathering, “My vision is that you see the church [Christ Church] in the background where everybody hangs out at lunch on a great day. Maybe this river park becomes a spot where people can sit and enjoy. This is a spot where there could be concerts, art showings, a lot of really neat opportunities.”
The city owns the Mowatt lot on the east side of the North Branch. It purchased the lot to make room for the bike path and bridge. While City Manager Bill Fraser has put together a group to consider various uses for that property, VRC is already hopefully referring to it as “Confluence Park East.”
Milone & MacBroom puts the total cost for any of the three designs on the west side of the river between $500,000 and $1 million. At its January 9 meeting, the city council authorized the VRC, the city parks department, and other relevant actors to continue a public process of planning and budgeting for the park.
The park—or parks—are just part of a suite of projects VRC is promoting for the confluence. Other projects include removing nearby dams on the Winooski and North Branch to make paddling easier and removing a combined sewer overflow discharge designed to periodically dump raw sewage into the Winooski River there.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of other opportunities to get down to the river, Montpelier resident Bob Heinz pointed out at the January 9 city council meeting. “There’s a great river access right behind Montpelier High School that no one really knows about,” he said. “Right below the dam on Pioneer Street, people come down and sunbathe.” Heinz urged the city to consider the park as part of a comprehensive plan for the river.
The VRC has a 17-member advisory committee for the park comprising representatives of the city, the state, nonprofits, and businesses. Ericson says they are working with the group to put together the next steps. No further public presentations have yet been scheduled.