Central flair: Locals lobby for arts, cyclists as Keene plans infrastructure work

Dec. 2—With concepts for Keene's planned downtown infrastructure overhaul set to move forward in coming weeks, local groups are advocating for what they think the cityscape should look like when the roads are put back together.

Some of those ideas include giving the Elm City new flair with a fresh swath of color, while others would improve travel for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Jessica Gelter, Arts Alive's executive director, said she and other members of the Keene nonprofit have been strongly supporting more green space, room for festivals and events, as well as ways to encourage foot traffic in the downtown corridor and intersecting streets such as Gilbo Avenue.

Arts Alive, at Eagle Court, works to build a community that values the arts and sees them as integral to the economy. Since 2021, the organization has been spearheading the Keene Arts Core Project, an effort to revitalize downtown through art, greenery, and possibly by adding a new marketplace to Gilbo Avenue.

Gelter said Arts Alive plans to apply for grants and fundraise locally to cover costs for the Arts Core, and doesn't expect financial assistance from the city.

Keene's planned infrastructure improvements could offer an opportunity to incorporate the ideas of the Arts Core.

"That is our primary focus," she said Thursday. "Because we know that there's all this change that could happen in the next couple years. We're working with the city to integrate what is put back on top when the work is done. We're trying to make the best of the situation and the confluence with our vision and the city's."

The infrastructure project, which Public Works Director Kürt Blomquist said carries an estimated cost of more than $7 million, would tear up Main Street and include upgrades to sewer and stormwater systems, broadband expansion and sidewalk improvements. Construction would begin in 2023 and last through 2025.

Blomquist said the city is still determining the project's exact funding breakdown, but some money will come from Keene's sewer fund and general fund.

He added that Keene has also applied for a $300,000 grant from the N.H. Department of Environmental Services and a low-interest loan for the stormwater and wastewater upgrades, estimated at $900,000.

Back in June, the Washington, D.C.-based Citizens' Institute on Rural Design sent out a final design book to Arts Alive, visualizing concepts for the Arts Core, with a focus on the area surrounding Emerald Street and Gilbo Avenue. The ideas included a multicolor painted crosswalk, sidewalk and bike path, strung-up lights and murals. Other concepts from the design book would extend the sidewalk on Gilbo Avenue near Yolo Cafe toward the street, to make room for a marketplace structure.

"Those are all things that are still floating around," Gelter said. She added that she thinks giving the downtown a new coat of paint —by painting sidewalks or putting up murals — could keep Keene lively once construction is underway.

"It's part of the idea that you want to keep Main Street and downtown friendly and accessible," she said. "Public art is a great intervention to help people feel comfortable navigating those changes."

Stantec, a Canadian-based engineering services company, is the city's consultant and designers on the infrastructure work. The city's website shows possible layouts for Main Street, Gilbo Avenue and Central Square.

Some of these plans include expanded green space, designated bike lanes, altered parking layouts and a shrunken traffic circle to replace the one at Central Square.

Gelter said she wasn't particularly committed to any of the designs, but people involved with the Arts Core "generally love the [concepts]" that shift the focus away from cars and pave the way for public space that would be more accessible to pedestrians and ideal for downtown events.

One of the concepts for Central Square, which City Councilor Randy Filiault said the infrastructure committee is eyeing, would shrink the Central Square traffic circle and move it slightly south. The design also shows a large patch of green space that would extend from the northern side of the traffic circle. This would restrict parking to Washington Street and Court Street, axing the spaces currently on the northern side, like spots in front of The Stage restaurant and the United Church of Christ.

One of the options for Main Street would would restrict traffic to one lane in either direction and and install protected bike lanes, an idea that has seen strong backing from a handful of groups.

In a Nov. 11 letter to Mayor George Hansel and the City Council, members of Keene's Bicycle and Pedestrian Pathway Advisory Committee wrote that rebuilding downtown as a place that supports the needs and preferences of walkers, bicyclists or those traveling via wheelchair would provide a wide array of benefits. These include a stronger economy and reduced greenhouse emissions as fewer people travel in cars.

"The project ... represents a once in a generation opportunity to reimagine public space in the heart of our community and to create a downtown that is not just great, but world class," the letter states. "The City of Keene Bicycle and Pedestrian Pathway Advisory Committee (BPPAC) believes that a key component to realizing the full potential of this opportunity is to emphasize walking and cycling in the final project design."

According to the N.Y. Department of Transportation, after the first on-street parking and signal-protected bicycle path in the U.S. was installed on 9th Avenue in Manhattan in 2007, retail sales to nearby businesses increased by 49 percent.

In their letter, members of the bicycle and pedestrian committee favored concepts for Main Street that show protected bicycle lanes outside the roadway between parking spaces and the sidewalk.

"Parked cars provide a physical barrier between cyclists and moving traffic," they wrote. "A curb, meanwhile, provides assurance that parked cars won't encroach on bike lanes."

Members of the city's Energy and Climate Committee and the Monadnock Alliance for Sustainable Transportation sent similar letters to the council, advocating for more bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure.

Councilor Filiault told The Sentinel last week that while he understands bicyclists' desire to have dedicated lanes of travel, he thinks it shouldn't be a priority in a large infrastructure project, and more people need to weigh in on what is needed.

"I'm not saying it's a bad proposal, but I don't think we should be putting it forward based on a handful of people," he said at the time. "I don't know if we would need a bike path that would only be used six months out of the year."

Todd Horner, a Keene resident and vice-chairman of the bicycle and pedestrian committee, said in an email to The Sentinel that a bicycle is his primary means of transportation. In response to Filiault's statement, Horner said he thinks the city would find there is a wide interest in cycling, if it were safer to do so through protected bike lanes.

"People bicycle in cold weather, when there's appropriately maintained and safe infrastructure to do so," he wrote. "When have NH residents been stopped by cold weather? I'm convinced high quality bike infrastructure in our downtown would be used year-round."

Concepts detailing the options committee members are considering can be reviewed at http://bit.ly/3TWDw1G.

These meetings are open to the public, and Mayor Hansel said the next is scheduled for Dec. 13 at 3 p.m. at City Hall.

After the committee's vote on the redesigns for Central Square, Main Street and Gilbo Avenue, the concepts will be sent to the MSFI Committee to make a recommendation to the full City Council. Following a City Council vote, Hansel said the design process will begin.

Hunter Oberst can be reached at 355-8546, or hoberst@keenesentinel.com.