Planning for downtown Athol moves forward but questions need answering

  • Main Street Athol. Officials are charged with making downtown Athol more business- and pedestrian-friendly. Staff file photo/Paul Franz

For The Athol Daily News
Published: 6/21/2022 3:33:45 PM
Modified: 6/21/2022 3:33:25 PM

ATHOL — Montachusett Regional Planning Commission Executive Director Glen Eaton is working on a plan which, when complete, could provide steps that could be taken to make downtown Athol more business- and pedestrian-friendly. On June 8, Eaton met with Athol’s Economic Development and Industrial Corporation to provide an update on his efforts and will meet with the Downtown Vitality Committee in early July for that same purpose.

Eaton’s efforts are being funded through a Downtown Local Technical Assistance grant secured by Athol Planning and Development Director Eric Smith.

Eaton discussed his efforts in a recent interview with the Athol Daily News.

“The leadership (of Athol),” said Eaton, “is looking at a variety of plans; obviously, an overall plan for the downtown but also, they’re attacking — if you will — smaller segments of the community. We were asked to do some urban renewal planning for the downtown.”

Eaton explained that his concentration in recent months has been on the Exchange Street “segment” from the Exchange Street Bridge to South Street.

“What I’ve been doing through COVID, and I’ll be finishing the project this summer, is an Exchange Street revitalization and action plan, or RAP. It’s about revitalization in the whole downtown; it’s about revitalizing Exchange Street as a north-south corridor.

“No planner or planning staff person likes to write a plan that sits on a shelf. We all want to see action. So, at the end of each section, it’s going to end up being roughly 50 pages with action steps.”

Eaton noted that EDIC Chairman Mark Wright said at their recent meeting that a lot of planning documents exist but what’s important is implementation.

“The planning world, we’re engaged to write the documents but it’s not up to us to implement. Like in the case of a master plan: The master plan isn’t done when the Planning Board or the Town Meeting adopt it. You need to set up a master plan implementation committee that’s cross-representative of a variety of people. It’s up to the community to implement the stuff that’s in that plan.”

A number of issues, however, must first be addressed.

Eaton said a number of buildings along Exchange Street are either unused or underused, adding the town needs to ascertain the intent of the property owners regarding the future of those buildings.

“There’s the former gas station and former Athol Daily News building. There’s the old fire station — what’s the town’s intent for that? What’s the intent of the owner who owns Maroni? What’s the intent of the people who own the former Tina’s and Plotkin’s?”

Eaton characterized some of the buildings as “underutilized” rather than vacant, noting that some are being used for storage.

“So, it’s about what do we do with the vacant properties?” he said. “The issue of brownfields comes up. Federal law says anything where there’s real or perceived contamination is a brownfield site. So, we may need EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) resources to address some of the brownfield sites.”

Eaton went on to say a number of alternatives are being looked at regarding the future of each building.

“What if you tear down any structure and you put in parking?” he continued. “What if you tear down a structure and you put in grass and a lawn and you make it a play area, and you make it a pocket park? What if you tore down a building and said, ‘That can be some other recreational use, or mixed use — it could be new development. We’re charged with looking at every kind of possibility under the sun.”

The regional planner also said the Millers River needs to be considered as “the primary asset for the downtown.”

He pointed out that a planning session held in Athol some two decades ago raised the possibility of a boardwalk from the area of the Town Hall and library to the Exchange Street Bridge.

“Then I thought,” he said, “what if we did five boardwalks? What if we did one behind the library/Town Hall parcel? What if we did one off the police station parcel? What if there was one off of Raymond Place? And then what if you used a spit off the land the town owns for the wastewater treatment plant property?”

Eaton said pedestrian safety is also a main concern along Exchange Street between the bridge and Main Street. At one point, the standard 36-foot width of the road widens to 56 feet, and another where the width hits 66 feet. This creates a safety issue for pedestrians crossing from one side of the street to the other. That, too, needs to be addressed.

Eaton will update the Downtown Vitality Committee on his work at the panel’s meeting on July 12. He said the final version of his plan won’t be completed until he gets input from as many downtown stakeholders as possible.

Greg Vine can be reached at gvineadn@gmail.com


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