Envisioning a more ‘humane’ village

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By Jason Starr
The Essex Reporter

How can Essex Junction residents make Five Corners a place visitors want to come to instead of just drive through? A good chunk of the annual village meeting earlier this month was devoted to the topic.

Urban planner Julie Campoli, a consultant hired by the board of village trustees, has led residents on a vision quest that started in November to imagine a more pedestrian-centric downtown. She presented the bulk of her findings to about 120 residents at the April 1 annual meeting. She is still working on a final report.

Her most striking suggestion is that the village fundamentally rework its central five-way intersection — piggybacking off the upcoming construction (next year at the earliest) of a bypass road around Five Corners behind the Lincoln Inn — to remove automobiles from the first block of Main Street. She also recommends narrowing Park Street with wider sidewalks at the block closest to Five Corners, once the bypass road begins diverting traffic behind the Lincoln Inn.

Removing cars from Main Street’s Brownell Block would allow for a pedestrian-scale public place in the heart of the village. It could be a home for the weekly seasonal Five Corners Farmers Market, the annual block party, and a rotating array of food trucks and art displays, she said.

“The (connector) creates really great opportunities to turn Essex Junction into the place it used to be,” said Campoli, referring to a time before the proliferation of automobiles. “It lets the village reclaim a lot of that asphalt for public space.”

Her plan, it was noted, would need endorsement from those who own the property that lines downtown streets. Village resident Dorothy Bergendahl said she frequents the Road Res Q car service station at the corner of Main and Maple streets. In a drawing Campoli presented of a pedestrian-centric Main Street, Road Res Q and the Simon’s gas station across the street are conspicuously missing.

“Green space is nice, but you’re taking people’s businesses away,” Bergendahl said.

“Landowners are really the key players here,” Campoli acknowledged. “Engage with them. Show them the vision and what the advantage is to them.”

The vision, she said, is compatible with current land use regulations written into the Village Comprehensive Plan and Land Development Code.

“We’re not buying anyone’s building,” village president George Tyler said. “But we could show them, if they can benefit from this, we can help make it happen.”

Back in January, citizens gathered with Campoli in the Essex High School cafeteria to consider the current Five Corners streetscape and model the changes they hoped for. She pointed out vacant and under-utilized parcels — like the former rail yard behind the Lincoln Inn — that are ripe for improvement.

She argued for an urban style of development where buildings have retail space on the ground floor with apartments above, and where buildings are sited with storefronts along the sidewalk and parking in the back.

It’s a style that the four-story building currently under construction at the corner of Park and Pearl streets will model. Campoli envisions Park Street lined with similar sidewalk-fronting buildings from Five Corners down to the future intersection with the connector road.

“It will be a much more humane environment,” she said.