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Montague board blasts sidewalk park plan

Gives OK, however, as part of grant to improve downtown lighting

Joe Dodge replaces the globe after changing a bulb on a light pole on Avenue A in Turners Falls in 2008. (Recorder file/Peter MacDonald)

Joe Dodge replaces the globe after changing a bulb on a light pole on Avenue A in Turners Falls in 2008. (Recorder file/Peter MacDonald)

TURNERS FALLS — Calling it everything from sexy to dumb and wasteful, the Montague Board of Selectmen derided a plan to spend potential grant money on a sidewalk park, but ultimately signed off on the request.

Planners defended the proposal as a recommendation issuing from community meetings and workshops aimed at downtown livability, and a necessary ingredient in a successful grant application. The grant package includes funding for improved downtown lighting, a proposal to which there was no opposition.

The sidewalk bump-out on Avenue A at the Third Street intersection is included in this year’s Community Development Block Grant application alongside a proposal to replace the 33 decorative streetlights on Avenue A with new light posts equipped with energy-efficient LED bulbs.

Selectmen objected to the loss of three parking spaces, the cost and the lost opportunity to spend that money elsewhere.

“I’m not overly comfortable spending $200,000 when there are a lot of things we could do with that money,” said Selectman Michael Nelson. “Taxpayers are going to throw their hands up when they hear we’re spending 200 grand for a big sidewalk.”

Town Administrator Frank Abbondanzio said the cost for the whole project is an estimated $384,000, the price tag split between lights and sidewalk.

Nelson said he had a problem with the perception, even understanding that the money would not come directly from the town’s pockets. The Block Grant program is administered by the state and funded by federal tax dollars.

As envisioned by Berkshire Design Group, the bump-out would project into the street in front of shop Madison on the Avenue to the depth of the existing parking spaces. Landscaping includes seat-height planters, plants and new trees selected so as not to obstruct views of the storefront. The surface would be largely concrete with brick accents, as a compromise between accessibility and the downtown’s brick aesthetic.

Berkshire Design Group representative Emily Wright, one of two presenting the project to the selectmen, said the sidewalk bump-out fit the vision of the recently completed Turners Falls Livability Plan and would show participants that their voices were heard.

That document was drafted after public workshops and focus group meetings of residents, business owners, teenagers and other groups.

Town Planner Walter Ramsey said the livability plan called for better lighting and downtown gathering places, not parking spaces.

MJ Adams, director of the Franklin County Regional Housing and Redevelopment Authority, said side-by-side sidewalk and lighting projects meet the requirements for a successful application, with two projects in the same location in the street-scape improvement category.

The selectmen voted unanimously to authorize the application on the understanding that the chance at funding for the lighting project would be lost if the accompanying sidewalk project were dropped.

Ramsey wrote Tuesday he is working with Berkshire Design to alter the design and scope of work to incorporate the selectmen’s wishes, including more trash receptacles on Avenue A, the feasibility of extending lighting to Peskeomskut Park, and reducing the scale of the sidewalk plaza.

The application also includes money for the housing rehabilitation revolving fund, a perennial element of the Block Grant request, and money for a local service agency’s English literacy program.

Montague Catholic Social Ministries in 2012 began offering an early childhood literacy program in conjunction with the Center for New Americans’ newly instituted adult English class in Turners Falls, providing childcare for parents attending the classes and supplemental education for the children preparing for or enrolled in elementary school.

Adams said the program has been very successful and public school teachers have begun to comment on the improvement in their students.

You can reach Chris Curtis at: ccurtis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 257

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