BRATTLEBORO—Stand at the corner of Bridge and Depot streets near the train station, and look around.
The contrast between what the landscape looked like in March, and what it looks like now, is amazing.
Look toward Hinsdale, and you see green space instead of derelict buildings.
Look across the street, and you see the Whetstone Station Restaurant and Brewery, the newest addition to the local dining scene.
Look up the hill toward Malfunction Junction, and you see the new Brattleboro Food Co-op building, the first major new commercial building in downtown Brattleboro in decades.
Finally, look down Depot Street, toward Merrill Gas and the Barrows & Fisher fuel depot. Where construction machinery and piles of dirt and gravel sat just a few short weeks ago, now an iron fence, a new sidewalk, a freshly-paved parking area, new streetlights, and a bus shelter can be seen.
Taken together, the panorama of progress suddenly hits you. After more than three decades of discussion, false starts, bureaucratic snafus, and funding uncertainties, the Union Station project is finally becoming real, and its impact on the lower end of downtown Brattleboro near the Whetstone Brook is undeniable.
On July 25, the town celebrated the progress made on the Union Station project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring most of the people who have been involved in the final push toward turning an eyesore into an asset.
The project’s backstory
At a cost of $75,000, Union Station was built for the Central Vermont and Boston & Maine railroads in 1915. For the next five decades, it served as the town’s rail center. But when passenger rail service ended on Sept. 1, 1966 — the result of the Interstate Highway System and changing travel habits — the station closed and quickly fell into disrepair.
The building was sold to the town, and there was talk of tearing it down and turning it into a parking lot, but instead, the building was rescued. In 1972, the top two levels became the home of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. The station’s ground floor became the new waiting room for passengers when Amtrak resumed rail service to Brattleboro in 1973.
Instead of becoming a parking lot, Union Station ended up on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
But the area around Union Station still reflected the industrial legacy of Brattleboro, a legacy that was slowly fading away. It presented a neglected landscape to passengers coming into town on the train.
Veronica “Ronny” Johnson and Helene Henry wanted to do something about that, and pressed the Selectboard in 1977 to apply for grant money to do a study of the site.
Town Manager Barbara Sondag said that was when the first mention of renovations to Union Station took place at a Selectboard meeting.
The Selectboard decided to go forward with a $100,000 feasibility study, and that marked the beginning a long-running saga of a project that looked like it might never happen.
The initial feasibility study was conducted in the 1970s, but languished for nearly 20 years until 1998, when town officials proposed a two-phase, multi-modal project that included a downtown parking garage and a refurbished Amtrak station.
The project received $8 million from the Federal Transit Administration; $1.8 million in state grants; $4 million in local funds raised by bond issue; and $1.2 million through other sources. Sondag credited former U.S. Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., for providing most of the funds through the earmark process.
The parking garage, which also includes a local and intercity bus station, was completed in 2003, but the Union Station renovations and the purchase of land across the tracks from the station on Depot Street, proved harder to complete.
Lawsuits, a federal audit of the project’s funding, environmental concerns, and other delays forced the project to be scaled back. Sondag said the original plan, to build a covered passenger platform, had to be shelved because the town lost some of its original funding. The focus shifted across the tracks.
The town pressed ahead, and by the end of 2011, work was finally set to begin on Depot Street. Sondag said that it took years of teamwork and determination to get the project to that point.
“We’re here today to celebrate a really collaborative effort,” said Sondag. “There are so many people that were involved in this project, and so many unique problems that we experienced with this project, that sometimes I think if we didn’t have each other, it could have been a really bad situation.”
Today, and tomorrow
Work finally began in March with the demolition of the old Brattleboro Gasworks and Scalehouse buildings. The land was capped with soil and soon was transformed into a small park.
A new sidewalk was built in front of the 17-space parking area. This will be the new place for people waiting to pick up or drop off train passengers, as the current parking area at the station will be converted into a passenger platform.
A small timber-frame bus shelter, designed and built by Monica MacNeille, was installed near the corner of Bridge and Depot streets.
Still to come are improvements to the station itself, which is one of the busiest in Vermont.
“Now we have to work on the back of the station,” said BMAC director Danny Lichtenfeld. “It’s a little scruffy now, but it wouldn’t take much to make it look better.”
It could become even busier once upgrades to the rail line between Brattleboro and Springfield, Mass., speed up travel times and return passenger trains to the Connecticut River Valley route through Greenfield, Northampton, and Holyoke, Mass., on the way to Springfield, New Haven, Conn., and New York City.
As for the Union Station area, one last big piece is still missing — the construction of the new Hinsdale-Brattleboro bridge. The current two bridges that carry Route 119 over the Connecticut River were built in 1920, and have been slated for replacement for years.
However, the state of New Hampshire, which owns the bridges, has balked at the estimated nearly $37 million cost of building the replacement span downstream between the former Norm’s Marina and the former Morse’s Feed Store, and has indefinitely deferred the project.
If the new bridge gets built, the 1920 spans would become pedestrian bridges and a long-time traffic bottleneck would be removed. The new bridge would cross the railroad tracks, eliminating traffic backups around Malfunction Junction when trains pass through.
Also ahead is determining the next use of the former Archery Building at 28 Depot St. It was originally targeted for demolition until the state Division for Historic Preservation deemed the 19th century building historically significant and worthy of saving. Old photographs of the building from the turn of the 20th century suggest that it was a meat-packing house.
The Archery Building has been secured. The town is now accepting proposals for reuse of the building. A site visit will be held on Aug. 7 at 1 p.m.
Proposals are due by 10 a.m. on Sept. 12. They will then be reviewed by an ad hoc committee comprised of members of the town’s Union Station, SBA, and Arts committees, the Planning Commission, and the Recreation and Parks Department, who will then forward a recommendation to the Selectboard.
Because the property was bought with funding from the Federal Transportation Authority, it cannot be sold to a private enterprise. The town hopes to lease it.
All in all, Sondag said that while there is still much to do, the project to this point can be considered a success.
“We don’t have the project we initially envisioned back in 1997, but I hope people will see that we have a green field where there used to be a brownfield, that removing the parking to over here gives us a safe train platform, that we now have a lovely view when people get off the train, and that we’ve removed some fire hazards by removing some derelict buildings.”
“We’re not finished yet,” she added, “but I think this is a successful project.“
It was sentiment echoed by Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray.
“This corner of the community has seen dramatic change over the past year,“ he said. “This is what happens when people have a passion in the things they believe in.”
Henry and Johnson, who started the ball rolling in 1977, are still on the Union Station Committee and were among the guests at the July 25 ceremony. Johnson had the honor of cutting the ribbon.