Don't miss the Bethel Better Block video at the end of this article.
Not all towns have the staffing, experience and resources needed to identify and take action on livability measures. Because of that, AARP Vermont piloted an alternative approach to improving livability by challenging communities to take immediate action using do-it-yourself methods pioneered by the Better Block Project.
In March 2016, AARP Vermont put out a request for proposals asking communities to submit an application to participate in a demonstration project in partnership with AARP and Team Better Block. The revitalization-focused project would temporarily transform a single block into a vibrant destination, thereby illustrating the potential for new businesses, safer streets and improved livability.
The opportunity was exactly right for Bethel, Vermont, at exactly the right time. A small rural town of just over 2,000 people (median age: 43), Bethel has a compact, historic downtown center and four additional village centers scattered across 45 square miles of hills and valleys in the Green Mountains of central Vermont.
Bethel was once a bustling industrial town, but over time the large employers dwindled, leaving empty storefronts and limited employment opportunities. Nearly 20 years ago, a downtown revitalization plan for Bethel called for a riverwalk, streetscaping, a renovated Town Hall, parking lot improvements, and more. Some of those elements were built; most were forgotten.
In 2011, Bethel hit a low point when Tropical Storm Irene devastated the downtown and surrounding community. After Irene, there was a sense that Bethel had little to offer. One critical success was an ad hoc community group called Bethel Revitalization Initiative, which describes itself as a "do-ocracy," meaning "people show up with good ideas and then do them."
At the time of Bethel's application to participate in the AARP project, five historic buildings and businesses in the community's core downtown block were for sale. Some of the buildings were vacant and in need of significant repairs. Investors were interested in the properties but hesitant to commit without a sense of the town's future possibilities. A Better Block demonstration would help townspeople and investors see and experience Bethel's potential in real life.
From Friday, September 30, to Sunday, October 2, 2016, a downtown block of Bethel's village was temporarily transformed by the following pop-up demonstration projects (the "recipes" for which can be found here):
- The Blue Lane: By removing parking on one side of the street, the project created a dedicated 700-foot lane for people to walk, bicycle, push baby strollers, use a wheelchair or walker, or even ride a horse.
- Enhanced Crosswalks and a Pedestrian Island: Painted stripes were added to the existing crosswalks to make them more visible. Curb extensions were created by using landscaping and "bulb-outs" (which were constructed by using straw wattles) reduced the crossing distance from one side of Main Street to the other. The pedestrian island, which was also made of straw waddles and landscaping, narrowed the travel lanes in order to reduce the speed of vehicle traffic through the location.
- Parklet: By replacing two parking spaces with café seating and a food stand, the project provided another traffic-calming measure and contributed to the local economy.
- Beer Garden: Temporarily transforming a vacant, underutilized parking lot into a beer garden with live music created a place for people to gather and socialize.
- Pop-Up Shops: Vacant and underutilized building spaces were temporarily transformed into viable, active retail space.
- Beautification: Volunteers used paint, seating and flowers to decorate vacant spaces on Main Street.
- Temporary Bus Shelter: Placed in a centralized downtown location, the bus shelter provided adequate sidewalk space, seating and shade. Stagecoach, a transit company, ran a circulator route during the event.
Creating a Better Block
The Better Block Project promotes the use of simple modifications that can powerfully alter the economic, social, and ecological value of a community by gathering designers, community residents and volunteers together to create a weekend intervention.
The process takes a bottom-up approach to planning that allows community residents to be directly involved with the rapid build-out and construction of revitalization projects. The goal is to inspire and educate community leaders and residents to make streets safer and communities more vital and livable.
On-the-ground work between Bethel Revitalization Initiative volunteers, AARP and Team Better Block began with a June 2016 "Walk and Talk" during which residents pointed out favorite places, troubled spots, and areas where the town could use some improvement.
More than 75 people participated in roundtable conversations, brainstorming ideas for what Bethel could look like in the future. Residents mapped the community assets and needs, focusing on preserving town history, providing public spaces and safe pedestrian crossings, and encouraging speed-reductions and less noise. Community members stepped up to lead workshops, take on projects, organize pop-up shops, clean public spaces and lead events.
COSTS and CREW
The Bethel Better Block weekend was executed by a core team of 25 volunteers and three staff members from AARP Vermont and Team Better Block. Materials, permits and insurance for the event cost about $4,000.
OUTCOMES and NEXT STEPS
In one weekend, Bethel's downtown came alive with hundreds of visitors. People waited excitedly in long lines for food at the pop-up taco stand. Families enjoyed new spaces for kids to play and socialize. Enhanced crosswalks and planters led to safer conditions for pedestrians. Local artists sold their wares in once vacant buildings. Visitors sat around an outdoor table in a new pocket park, formally an overgrown lot.
The pop-up shops demonstrated how retail and service-sector jobs could operate in Bethel. Within a year of the Better Block Bethel weekend:
- A vacant building on Main Street was purchased and the owner is committed to rehabbing it and has supported continuing the pop-up shops
- The Bethel Revitalization Initiative secured an animating infrastructure grant that will create a permanent mural on the retaining wall downtown and permanent outdoor seating is in the works
- The transit provider is adding a deviated fixed route that will service Bethel with local transit options
- The traffic calming demonstrations throughout the downtown improved walkability and livability and made such a good impression that the city and state are examining ways to calm the traffic permanently
The project was a tipping point for building enthusiasm and commitments to make Main Street Bethel thrive again.
Among the long-term results of the Better Block Bethel demonstration project:
- Two vacant downtown buildings were purchased and renovated as mixed-use properties with retail on the first floor and housing on the second
- A bus route was established connecting the downtown with amenities and services elsewhere in the area
- Bulb-outs were installed at two crosswalks to improve pedestrian safety
- Beautification efforts were stepped up (thanks to grant funding from the Vermont Arts Council) to use for public art. (See image 16 in the Bethel slideshow for one example.)
Page published January 2017 | Updated October 2019