BRATTLEBORO—Now that reconstruction of the fire-ravaged Brooks House is under way, attention is turning to another piece of the downtown landscape, the Harmony Lot.
The Brooks House project includes an upgrade of some of the private parking spaces in the north end of the Harmony Lot, as well an outdoor terrace.
But bigger plans may lie ahead. A graduate student from the Conway School of Landscape Design is working with the town of Brattleboro and adjacent property owners to come up with ideas for creating a new community gathering space in the Harmony Lot.
“There is a full spectrum of opinions around how Harmony Lot may best serve the community,” said Kimberly Smith of Westminster, the Conway School’s 2012-13 Brattleboro/Windham County Fellow.
The Conway School is a landscape design and planning school based in Conway, Mass. Launched in 1972, it has graduates in 45 states and 15 countries.
The Brattleboro/Windham County Fellow program was started by the school in October with the goal of completing three significant community design/planning projects by July 1, 2013.
Smith said that the supporters of turning some, or all, of the Harmony Lot over to pedestrians say that Brattleboro “lacks a community space that facilitates social engagement and invites all of its members to participate,” and that the space “naturally lends itself to a community gathering space due to its protected, yet central location, which is lacking in the existing parks in town.”
While Smith said that a more traditionally designed park “would encourage gathering and the enhancement of community identity through the performing arts, street vendors, and markets, these goals are not exclusive, nor are they all necessarily incompatible with a parking lot.”
With two public parking areas within a two-minute walk of Harmony Lot — the Transportation Center and the High-Grove Lot — Smith said that supporters of the pedestrian plaza believe parking in Harmony Lot would not be missed, and believe that lost parking revenues would be recouped by the town collecting fees from vendors.
Supporters of this plan say they believe businesses would benefit from the added traffic generated by community events in the reconfigured Harmony Lot, but Smith said that those who support keeping the Harmony Lot as a short-term parking area spoke of concern that “street vendors could compete with adjacent stores without having to absorb the overhead” and that Harmony Lot parking “will be at a premium when the Brooks House renovations are complete.”
Given the perennial complaints about the cost and availability of parking in downtown Brattleboro, and the resistance to giving up a centrally located parking area by merchants and shoppers alike, Smith believes there is a way to accommodate those who want more public space, and those who want the Harmony Lot to stay as it is.
“There is sufficient space to find a middle ground that provides parking while creating designated space for the community,” she said. “Many feasible design configurations are possible by varying the size and location of pedestrian space. There is, of course, a space dimension. There is also a time dimension in which a parking lot could be maintained but closed to vehicles for specific periods in order to host special festivals, outdoor markets, or community events. The opportunities for community enhancement are many.”
Smith’s background is atypical for a landscape designer: She has worked as a field biologist on a wide range of wildlife research and conservation projects, ranging from sea turtle conservation in Costa Rica and Mexico, to bald eagle restoration on California’s Channel Islands. She has also worked for an alternative energy nonprofit, as well as on an organic community supported agriculture (CSA) farm.
She said these experiences taught her “the importance of integrating an ecological consciousness into the core of how we individually and collectively design and utilize land. Ecological systems have demonstrated their tendency toward dynamic resilience, diversity, and sustainability. By enabling natural systems to function as they were designed to, the health and well-being of all life is greatly enhanced.”
She said those principles inform her approach to landscape design, and she wants to apply them to the Harmony Lot project.
“Brattleboro has an incredible opportunity with the Harmony Lot to dig deeply into its core values and priorities through dialogue,” she said. “There are valid arguments for both parking as well as creating pedestrian-designated space. It’s my hope that the community is able to approach this discussion in a constructive and collaborative manner.”
Smith is in the process of “crowdsourcing” funding for the Harmony Lot project. The difference is instead of using commercial sites such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, the Conway School has created its own version of the process. Her information can be found at http://bit.ly/YChvXV.