MONTPELIER — A local architect pitched his plan to build a public “parklet” for downtown Montpelier to a cautiously receptive City Council this week.
Ward Joyce, who lives in Montpelier and teaches architecture at Vermont Technical College in Randolph Center, told councilors that his students are working on four designs for “parklets” — portable landscaped decks placed adjacent to sidewalks in urban settings. He said he is prepared to have one built, at no cost to the city, and placed on a prominent State Street bridge.
“The Rialto Bridge is probably the most social spot in town,” Joyce said. “It’s where the sun shines in a fabulous way” in the afternoons.
It is also, Joyce said, the spot where those employed in both city and state government converge in the capital.
“I think it’s a perfect place to have a public amenity developed on a trial two-year basis,” he said.
Joyce said he’s already raised two-thirds of the money needed for construction, persuaded his employer to cover the cost of insuring it, and is working on a plan to have downtown merchants take turns maintaining it.
“It’s not for a business,” Joyce stressed. “It’s purely a public space.”
Or it will be, if and when Joyce obtains approval from Montpelier Alive for a seasonal structure that would fill two parking spaces but won’t need a thumbs-up from the city’s Development Review Board. Montpelier Alive is spearheading a process to establish parklets downtown.
Due largely to parklets’ temporary nature, city officials have concluded they won’t require zoning permits and aren’t subject to the city’s design review standards.
They will require a $50 application fee and be subject to an annual “parking replacement” charge of $810 per parking space.
Given the public nature of his proposal, Joyce asked councilors to waive those fees in exchange for what he described as a gift to the city.
Councilors did as they were asked, though they warned there is no guarantee Joyce’s proposal will be awarded any of the six parking spaces the council has provisionally agreed could be occupied by parklets during the summer months during a two-year trial period. That decision, they said, would be made as part of a competitive process that is in limbo pending voter approval of a package of charter changes on Town Meeting Day.
One of those changes would give the city the authority to do what it was advised it couldn’t last year: allow private businesses to set up shop in parklets in the public right of way.
However, City Manager William Fraser said it is unclear whether that change is needed to go ahead with the parklet Joyce proposed.
“This would be a public use of a public space,” Fraser said, suggesting it was different from three private proposals that stalled despite the city’s endorsement last year.
Councilors asked Fraser to seek a clarification from the state on that point. But they indicated their desire for Joyce’s proposal to be considered as part of a process that will be spearheaded by Montpelier Alive if the charter changes are approved.
Councilor Alan Weiss warned that even if the voters support the proposed changes to the city charter, there is no guarantee they will be approved by the Legislature this session.
“If it’s not (approved by the Legislature), I’m not convinced the city could go ahead with this plan,” Weiss said.
Weiss, who expressed lingering concern that parklets — public or private — run afoul of the conditions for issuing permits for “outside seating in the public right of way,” noted the site Joyce selected was already a popular gathering spot for local youth.
“Understand, we’re not building these for the general public, we’re not building these for our visitors, we’re building these for the teenagers who enjoy sitting in that warm sunshine,” Weiss said.
There’s nothing wrong with that, according to Councilor Thierry Guerlain.
“I know there’s going to be days when it’s too noisy and it’s too rowdy, but these are our kids,” he said, noting local youth have never taken to the plaza in front of City Hall and have been discouraged from congregating in front of City Center.
“I like the idea we’re going to have a place where kids can hang out,” he said.
However, Guerlain did worry that parklets — particularly public ones — could become attractive nuisances.
“I like the idea, but I’m wondering how we monitor what’s going on in the parklet,” he said, suggesting he wouldn’t want people sleeping in them.
Guerlain predicted the two-year trial period the council proposed would give city officials and residents an opportunity to decide whether parklets add something worth keeping to downtown Montpelier, or are simply a seasonal waste of parking spaces.
Councilor Anne Watson said she was pulling for the former.
“I hope that they’re safe and they’re beautiful and they enrich the town,” she said, suggesting it was important for the council to establish criteria for evaluating the experiment in advance.
Mayor John Hollar agreed.
“Not everybody is going to love these,” he predicted. “There’s been some push back already.”
That said, Hollar noted the parklet concept enjoys the near-unanimous support of the council — at least to give it a try.
“If it doesn’t work we’ll reconsider it,” he said.
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