By JASON STARR
The vision of a pedestrian plaza in the heart of Essex Jct., with the first block of Main Street closed to cars, has captured the imagination of village officials and community organizers.
Earlier this year, the citizens who organize the annual block party and street dance on Railroad Avenue considered a one-day trial of the idea, closing Main Street for the July 16 event that is traditionally held on Railroad Avenue.
The idea emerged from the Heart and Soul of Essex project and a “Design Five Corners” visioning session last year. The looming Crescent Connector bypass road around Five Corners is the concept’s primary enabler.
The road is scheduled for construction next summer and would allow north-south traffic to flow through Essex Jct. without using the first block of Main, known as the Brownell Block. Closing this to traffic would create a four-corner intersection at the current Five Corners.
“A four-way intersection is exponentially more efficient than a five-way intersection, in terms of light cycle time, movement of vehicles and reduction in pollution from idling cars,” village community development director Robin Pierce said.
Design Five Corners consultant Julie Campoli recommended the village test out the idea with temporary Main Street closures for community events even before the connector is built. Members of the Heart and Soul committee suggested the block party and street dance would be a good place to start. Traffic could be diverted through Railroad Street and Railroad Avenue.
But Essex Police Chief Brad LaRose panned the idea in a May memo to event organizers, saying the detour would create difficult turns for larger trucks and require temporary signs for cars approaching Main Street on Pearl and Park streets.
“This will undoubtedly bring a level of confusion and distraction to motorists and pedestrians,” LaRose wrote. “This would also place a strain on police resources … Alternative [contracted] traffic control would need to be employed.”
In light of LaRose’s comments, the block party committee tabled the idea. Advocates of a permanent pedestrian plaza on the Brownell Block want to make sure any trial run goes smoothly.
“There is that fear that if it’s not done right, the community will reject the idea,” Heart and Soul of Essex co-founder Liz Subin said. “We need to take our time.”
The Crescent Connector was originally scheduled for construction this summer but is now expected next summer since the project will create a new railroad crossing. Genessee and Wyoming initiated a new study of the road after the company acquired the rail line in 2013.
Pierce said the project will be incomplete if the village doesn’t follow it with a closure of Main Street to cars.
“Closing off Main Street … creates positive results that speak to good urban design, efficient traffic management and a safer and more humane village core that will attract people and businesses,” he said. “In fact, it creates a village core. We don’t have one at the moment.”
Subin noted some business owners on the Brownell Block have spoken out against the idea.
“We need a lot of input from the business community and really respect their concerns,” she said. “It is important they have a voice in this.”
Brett Grabowski, owner of the new residential and commercial building at the corner of Pearl and Park streets, favors the idea.
“We are very excited about that potential,” he said at last week’s Essex Rotary Club. “Car traffic is essential to bring people to the area, but you want to have walkability, and I think what the village is doing to achieve that is really important to our project and the whole area.”