After nearly a decade of lobbying, planning, and delays, town officials have completed a blueprint to revitalize downtown Franklin by restoring a two-way traffic flow and beautifying the area. Contracts for the project are expected to be awarded by fall.
The final design plans are awaiting the green-light from the state Department of Transportation, according to Town Administrator Jeffrey D. Nutting, who said the town is working to minimize the effects of the anticipated two-season construction schedule.
Plans for the project include new sidewalks, brick crosswalks, traffic lights, benches, uniform signs, landscaping, and period lights as well as the new traffic pattern, Nutting said.
Eighty percent of the estimated $6.25 million project will be paid through a $5 million grant from the federal government. The state will add another $1 million toward construction costs and the town will be responsible for picking up any additional costs, according to Planning Director Bryan Taberner.
The project is part of a process that has been transforming downtown over the past several years with construction of a new fire station, a town museum, expansion of Dean College, new buildings replacing those in disrepair, and new businesses and restaurants moving in alongside the old standbys such as The Rome, Vallee Jewelers, and Simon’s Furniture.
“There has been slow and steady progress to revitalize the area,” Nutting said.
State Representative Jeffrey N. Roy (D-Franklin) agreed, saying “breathing new life into downtown” is a key to planning for the entire town’s future.
Roy, a member of the Town Council and chairman of the committee formulating a new master plan for growth in town, called creating a viable and vital downtown an “overriding concern” of his committee.
While there has been little opposition to redirecting traffic and sprucing up the area, there is plenty of nervousness about how businesses will survive during the prolonged construction, according to Lisa Piana, executive director of the Franklin Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit organization of apbout 50 local business people working to promote downtown.
“We are so excited for it to get started, and to get finished. But no one is looking forward to the process,” she said, comparing it to doing major home renovations. “During construction no one is happy, but once the home is done, you love it.”
According to Taberner, the state will be in charge of the construction, which will be done in phases. He and Nutting said the town will name a point person at town hall to field concerns, and work with residents and downtown businesses to try to minimize disruption.
“The key will be communication and making sure the right hand knows what the left hand is doing,” Piana said.
The major piece of the project will be restoring two-way traffic through the triangle of downtown from Union Street at Davis-Thayer Elementary to Ruggles Street at Simons Furniture on one side of downtown, and then along Main Street on the other side, similar to the way it had been about 30 years ago, Nutting said.
Drivers traveling along East Central Street heading west through downtown will be able to continue onto West Central Street without being diverted onto Main Street as they are now. In addition, Emmons Street between Main and West Central will also become two-way, according to Taberner.
“Some people were nervous because they remember 30 years ago and traffic was tough,” Nutting said.
But the plan will eliminate angled road parking spaces that had caused problems in the past, and traffic lights will be installed on the railroad bridge to help keep cars moving.
The two-way traffic design is anticipated to not only alleviate the rush-hour back-ups but also provide more exposure for businesses along Main Street.
It will also solve another issue created by locating a fire station on one-way West Central street. The new design will allow fire trucks to turn left out of the station in response to emergencies from the west side of town, rather than be forced to take a right turn and head east onto the now one-way West Central Street to circle around the traffic island to go back down Main Street in response to calls from the other side of downtown.
The town will need small easements, from 80 to 300 square feet in several spots for the project, according to Nutting. Most of the easements will be temporary and are on town-owned land, he said. The town is in the process of negotiating with the other landowners, which include Dean College.
While reconfiguring the traffic pattern is a major component of the plan, the aesthetics are also an important part in creating a “destination” downtown where people park their cars and then spend time shopping, walking, and eating.
Already, Piana said, there are newly created green spaces with flowers and benches for people to sit and new shops, bakeries, and restaurants.
She said the lights proposed will be similar to those in downtown Marlborough and Norfolk, and will enhance the “New England charm” that has been created through zoning changes that have added restaurant patios for outside dining and residential potential to the mix of downtown development.
“It is going to be really beautiful,” Piana said. “I just wish I could close my eyes and have it done.”