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An artist’s rendering of the proposed annex for the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.

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On the waterfront

Despite pandemic’s shadow, Brattleboro’s downtown riverfront development projects are slowly moving forward

BRATTLEBORO—It might be hard to imagine now in the midst of the social, medical, and economic fallout of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

But allow yourself to imagine what the downtown waterfront area could look like four years from now.

If everything falls into place, a gleaming new annex to the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center (BMAC) will emerge at the foot of Main Street.

A new Amtrak station on Depot Street will offer parking and full access for mobility-impaired train passengers.

Once Amtrak moves out of its current quarters in the basement of BMAC, the vacated space could be used for anything from a creemee stand to a downtown visitors’ center.

When the long-delayed new Hinsdale-Brattleboro highway bridge over the Connecticut River is finally completed, the two existing green century-old iron bridges will become a pedestrian gateway to hiking trails, a wildlife area, a kayak launch, and a variety of other activities on the historic former home of Island Park.

All these things could become reality by the end of 2024.

However, as with any project — let alone four of them — the devil is in the details of planning, funding, and solidifying public support.

But all of these projects are in varying states of progress, and together constitute a major makeover for a long-neglected part of Brattleboro.

BMAC expansion still a go

In November 2019, BMAC Executive Director Danny Lichtenfeld and Bob Stevens of M & S Development formally unveiled plans for a multi-story, $30 million expansion of the museum.

A proposed 55,000-square-foot building would anchor the area of lower Main Street where the Barrows Block and a former electric generation plant on 11 Arch St. now stand. The complex would offer 24 new housing units, three floors of gallery space, and commercial space.

In an interview with The Commons last week, Lichtenfeld said BMAC had raised about $3 million as of February. Then the pandemic hit, and the museum “had to put a pause on active fundraising,” he said.

With the world “obviously changing, and changing in big ways around us,” Lichtenfeld said BMAC has re-evaluated its plans after talking with everyone involved in the project over the past few months.

“We decided to reach and see if our plans were still worthwhile and viable,” he said. “As a result, we made some minor adjustments, but the project is pretty much going forward as it was envisioned a year ago.”

Lichtenfeld said a good deal depends on the nation getting some control over the spread of COVID-19 and the realization of the economic recovery expected to follow once the pandemic eases and life starts returning to normal.

“But the overwhelming message we got was that the need for this project is as great now as it was before,” he said. “Our intentions and commitment are just as strong as they were last year, but we won’t know until we exhaust every avenue of funding.”

The funding plans for the project remain a mix of charitable gifts, private equity and financing, and state and federal tax credits and grants. The same formula was used to finance the rebuilding of the Brooks House after a devastating fire in 2011.

A surprise from Amtrak

The only passenger train that serves Brattleboro, Bellows Falls, and points north along the Connecticut River corridor, Amtrak’s Vermonter, suspended service in March due to the pandemic. But the daily train that runs between St. Albans and Washington, D.C., should resume in Vermont as soon as the railroad deems it safe to do so.

And, when that happens, a new train station and passenger platform might be waiting for it.

On Nov. 19, Amtrak announced that it is in discussions with the town, the New England Central Railroad, and the Vermont Agency of Transportation on a proposed $4.5 million station to be built on Depot Street across from the current station.

The plan includes a new 1,300-square-foot station building that complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and a 345-foot long high-level boarding platform, as well as ADA-compliant ramps that go to the elevated platform. Construction could start as soon as the spring of 2022.

The Brattleboro Development Review Board will meet online to look at the site plan for the station on Wednesday, Dec. 16, at 7 p.m.

Lichtenfeld said the Amtrak announcement was the first he had heard about the proposed new station. “This is all new enough that we’re still thinking about what to do,” he said.

The town owns the former Union Station building, constructed in 1909, which has served as BMAC’s home since 1972, so it will have a say in what happens to the space when Amtrak moves out.

“We haven’t had any conversations yet, but a new station is a welcome development,” Lichtenfeld said. “What could go in there would contribute to the overall scene.”

Bridges old and new

Work is expected to begin next summer on the new $60 million Hinsdale-Brattleboro bridge to replace the Anna Hunt Marsh and Charles Dana bridges that currently connect Brattleboro to Hinsdale, N.H.

The new bridge, located about 1,000 feet downstream from the current bridges, is expected to be completed by the end of 2024. The Marsh and Dana bridges, built in the 1920s, would then be decommissioned and converted to pedestrian and bicycle use.

Many proposals are circulating for what should be done with the bridges and the island in the middle of the Connecticut River that they connect to.

The Existing Bridges Subcommittee of the Hinsdale-Brattleboro Bridge Project Advisory Committee was formed this year to begin the process of winnowing the many ideas for the Marsh and Dana bridges into a plan that is both feasible and fundable.

The Southwest Region Planning Commission, based in Keene, N.H., is also involved in the process, as well as the Vermont and New Hampshire transportation agencies and the Windham Regional Commission.

Taken together, the individual projects — the bridges, the train station, and the museum expansion — constitute the final pieces of a nearly three-decades-long process to revitalize the south end of downtown Brattleboro and reconnect the town with its river.

Previous work in 2012 gave a makeover to the area with the demolition of the former Brattleboro Gasworks and Scalehouse, making way for a community park. The project was 20 years in the making.

One original part of that project — revitalizing the Archery Building — remains unrealized.

The town purchased the 1{1/2}-story building in 2006 as part of the previous efforts. An environmental assessment found the building “to have historic significance,” according to the 2018 update of the Brattleboro Town Plan.

The building, so named because it most recently was the site of an archery and outdoor retail outfitter, is believed to have been the first railroad station in town, which operated there from 1849 to 1885.

“Since the property was purchased using federal [Federal Transit Administration] funds, any action to demolish the structure will require further study,” the Town Plan notes. “The building is currently vacant and in need of rehabilitation if it is to remain.”

In 2013, after the town sought proposals for use of the property, a lone proposal from artists and entrepreneurs Natalie Blake and Randi Solin fell through.

Blake and Solin told The Commons in 2013 that renovations, estimated at $500,000, would have been too costly for a space that they would not have owned for 14 years.

“None of this is easy,” said Lichtenfeld. “The important thing is to stay optimistic. Brattleboro has a lot to look forward to.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #591 (Wednesday, December 9, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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