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Main Street Median Is a Town-Gown Bone of Contention

Local Matters


Published July 18, 2007 at 8:50 p.m.

Post-Mowing Median by UVM - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Post-Mowing Median by UVM

BURLINGTON — Last Friday at the murky hour of 4 a.m., the Main Street median strip adjacent to the University of Vermont was mowed. Before that, it looked like hell. Weeklong rains had caused the weeds to grow like, well, weeds, and had prevented timelier mowing. And nearly all the scraggly vegetation on that strip is, in fact, weeds. How did the highly touted “gateway to Burlington” get so unsightly?

The median strip was completed seven years ago when the road was widened to accommodate bottlenecking traffic. At the same time, stoplights and official crosswalks were installed, along with those attractive faux-vintage streetlamps. In the beginning the median, planted with allegedly hardy Rosa Rugosas, was attractive, too. And for a couple of years, says Burlington Parks & Rec Director Wayne Gross, his department maintained the plantings by hand. But that proved too labor-intensive and, in the end, the plants could not survive the lethal combination of winter, salt and auto emissions.

“It’s a mess,” states Gross flatly. “It was an ill-advised landscaping plan put in there years ago,” he notes. “UVM wanted [the median] done, to discourage students from crossing the street at various points. But the city recognized this was a bad concept.”

Gross refers not just to the doomed roses, but to the fact that the median strip is very narrow — the planting area is just 18 inches wide, he says. Therefore it can only be mowed in the wee hours, when traffic is lightest; otherwise, for safety reasons, “you’d have to shut down two lanes of traffic,” Gross explains.

“I think the city did have a concern about it,” concedes Linda Seavey, director of UVM’s Campus Planning Services. “This hasn’t been resolved, and we’re all impacted by the fact that it’s a gateway — we all agree on that.”

Another thing the city and university seem to agree on is that a promising opportunity for median amelioration now exists in the form of artist proposals to redesign it. Burlington City Arts issued RFQs in the spring for teams of artists, architects and/or landscape architects, and traffic engineers to “develop a design for gateways into the City of Burlington and into major points of interest.” Last Friday afternoon, four team proposals were reviewed at the Firehouse Gallery, according to BCA Administration Director Sara Katz, who oversees public-art processes for the city. The presenting groups were Landworks, H. Keith Wagner Partnership, Freeman French Freeman and S2 Architecture.

The aim of the design competition is twofold, as the boosterish language of the RFQ puts it: to “celebrate the arrival to the City of Burlington and begin the journey/exploration” of the city for visitors and residents; and to “develop an imaginative vocabulary for other potential gateway locations throughout the city.”

No “winner” has been declared as of press time, but Katz notes that, regardless of which project is chosen, all the design submissions will be displayed in City Hall in October. And after a design team is selected, there will be the small matter of raising some $300,000 to carry out the work.

Seavey, who sat on the panel that reviewed proposals, points out that the median strip, which runs between University Place and Spear Street, figures into UVM’s Master Plan as well. “It goes through four of our designated districts,” she says, “so we’re looking for guidelines that do not violate our own . . . The challenge is to design something that meets transportation and safety needs, is traffic-calming, and is beautiful and vibrant. We want to enhance UVM’s image, too.”