Keene officials announce revised timeline for downtown infrastructure project
Previously slated to break ground next spring, Keene’s expansive downtown infrastructure project — set to go before city councilors Thursday — will likely be pushed back until 2025, city officials said Wednesday.
City staff are pursuing grants for the project, and a delay will give them more time to apply and offset the burden on taxpayers, according to Mayor George Hansel.
“We’re working hard to mitigate any impacts to the local taxpayers this would have, and that means going after federal funding,” he said. “City staff and the city manager are working to attract as much federal funding as possible.”
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon said the decision to delay was driven primarily by the amount of time it will take to complete the final design process.
“The council has not had an opportunity to begin their review of the project and ask their questions,” she wrote in an email Wednesday. “If the council selects a preferred concept by May 2023 it would be at least June 2023 before final design began.”
Dragon added that between nailing down permits and details for the project following council consensus and submitting grant applications, she expects the city won’t be able to go out for a bid on the project until December 2024.
Currently estimated to cost more than $7 million, Hansel said it’s likely a delay will increase that price tag, although he added it’s impossible to know by how much at this time.
The three-year construction project would rip up Main Street to perform necessary upgrades to outdated sewer and stormwater systems, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This work, which constitutes roughly three-quarters of the project’s cost, also includes broadband expansion and sidewalk improvements.
City councilors are set to consider recommendations the project’s steering committee made in December about designs for what downtown Keene will look like when the work is finished. These include replacing the signalized traffic circle at Central Square with a compact roundabout. In addition, plans show a wedge of green space connecting the current square with the northern side where Life is Sweet and the United Church of Christ are located.
These changes, coupled with alterations to Main Street, would result in a net loss of 15 parking spaces downtown.
Other recommendations before councilors include protected bicycle lanes as well as a raised intersection connecting Gilbo Avenue and Railroad Street that city officials have said could double as space for an event or festival.
Considerable debate has emerged among community members, primarily concerning the plans for Central Square. While some think the redesign would make downtown more attractive, others have stated they think the square should look the same as it does now.
Although the project isn’t likely to begin for another two years now, Hansel said it’s still important that city councilors reach a final decision about the proposed changes in the next few months to allow the city to apply for more grants.
“We need to give city staff the ability to present a clear concept,” he said. “We need to get the decisions made to allow them to get funding and complete the project.”
At Thursday’s City Council meeting, Hansel said councilors will deliberate on how to proceed. They can decide either to move forward with considering the concepts as a quasi-committee of the whole — in which all councilors are involved at once — or they can send the project to one of the three subcommittees to make a recommendation to the full council.
Another option, Hansel added, would be a city council workshop, in which councilors would be able to ask questions, discuss options and gather more information before sending it to a committee.
Proposals and projects typically get referred to one of three council committees. These subgroups — Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure; Finance, Organization and Personnel; and Planning, Licenses and Development — discuss and accept public input on proposals before making a recommendation to the full council, which makes a final decision.
Councilor Mitch Greenwald, chair of the Municipal Services, Facilities and Infrastructure (MSFI) Committee, said he disagrees with the notion of the quasi-committee of the whole and that he thinks the project should go to the MSFI committee.
“The committee structure works well,” he said. “If it is referred to MSFI, I hope all councilors will be encouraged to go to every meeting and participate.”
The City Council is scheduled to meet Thursday at 7 p.m. at City Hall.
Hunter Oberst can be reached at 355-8546, or email@example.com.