MONTPELIER — Plans for Confluence Park are coming together, but it’s proximity to a portable park that was just trucked away following a flood of behavior-related complaints wasn’t lost on city councilors Wednesday night.
Though it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm for the park proposed at the confluence of the Winooski River and its North Branch, councilors acknowledged the small riverside space is just a short stretch of bike path — much of it a bridge — away from where Guertin Park spent several troubled months.
That run ended last week when the pergola-like gazebo that had become a haven for homeless residents and a source of chronic complaints was removed at the direction of councilors who described it as a failed experiment.
Those current events caught up with Confluence Park even as Richarda Ericson, deputy director of the Vermont River Conservancy, was updating the council on project for which Montpelier voters recently approved $600,000 in funding.
Resident Peter Kelman was the first to broach the issue, noting some of the unhoused residents who had used Guertin Park had drifted across the river to a picnic table located on the property where Confluence Park is planned.
“It’s a very small space,” Kelman noted, wondering whether the picnic table would remain when the park is developed and suggesting he was heartened to hear Ericson describe the park as a place that would be “open to people with varied life experiences.”
“It would be great if this could be designed in such a way that it could be shared among all kinds of people in Montpelier,” he said.
“We are very much aware of those concerns ... and want it to be a park for the people,” she said.
Ericson said designing a space that is “fun and welcoming” to people of all backgrounds and a variety of physical abilities is a “top priority” and it’s small size is an understood challenge as the “community project” that has pivoted from from conceptual to final design.
“How can we have it such that not one use overwhelms another use,” she said, expressing her hope the answer will be reflected in shovel-ready plans.
That was welcome news to Councilor Cary Brown given the recent complaints that dogged Guertin Park from one location to another and prompted the council’s two-week-old decision to store it in the public works garage.
“I’m very glad you’re thinking about it,” she told Ericson. “It’s top of mind to a lot of folks.”
Brown said she was eager to see the final design and hopeful the park will be inviting to a broad range of users notwithstanding it’s size.
“Looking at this small space … it seems that it has the potential for any small group of folks, or any one kind of use, to kind of dominate it and make it feel less welcoming and inviting to other people,” she said.
Ericson said “community engagement” has been critical with respect to the proposed park that was a pipe dream for decades and has been the subject of serious discussion since 2017. A conceptual plan was completed in 2019 and presented to the council in early 2020 before the pandemic forced a shift in focus to fundraising.
Those efforts have been successful and include landing a $300,000 grant from Land and Water Conservation Fund a year ago to $600,000 that was included in a broader bond issue that voters approved in March.
The bond money was pitched as the last piece of financing for a park, portions of which, due to its riverside location will occasionally be underwater.
“It may flood at times so we need to make sure we have a flood-able, adaptable park,” Ericson said of a riverfront amenity that will provide easy access to the water for folks who want to go fishing or launch a canoe or kayak.
Though the design is focused on the park, Ericson said the potential for removing two nearby dams could open up a corridor of the river in a way that could be “transformative.”
Ericson said there are plenty of examples of “riverside and river-centric cities” out west, but few on this side of the country.
“Montpelier could be the example,” she said.
While “inclusivity” is a top design priority, ensuring accessibility is another key feature. Ericson said arranging future maintenance of the park — whether through the city or community volunteers — will be critical, programming will be important and, given the proposed boat launch, some consideration should be given to swift water rescue.
Councilors weren’t asked to make any decisions with respect to the still-evolving project.