PEABODY — A proposal to redesign Peabody Square drew a largely positive response from the few dozen people who came to a presentation last night at the Torigian Community Life Center.
"I love the idea of having more green space, instead of what we have there now," said Barbara Nelson, who lives downtown near City Hall. "We don't really have any green space right now."
The proposal — which has been endorsed by the Police, Fire and Community Development departments and the city's veterans — is to eliminate the slip ramps from Main to Central streets and from Central to Lowell streets and create more of a traditional four-way intersection. The resulting space in each corner of the intersection would be redeveloped into landscaped public plazas. The monument would be moved from the middle of the square to a new plaza adjacent to the courthouse, making it more accessible to pedestrians.
"I've lived in Peabody a long time, and I've never once looked at the monument," Nelson said. "I think moving it back is a great idea."
New lights would be installed to accentuate the monument at night, and plants and other features are proposed to make the newly created plaza a good spot for community gatherings.
"This is what we feel and the city feels is the best approach for the square," said Erik Atkins, the project manager from Green International Affiliates, the consultants hired to design the project. "For all users of the road, there is improvement to the system: for vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians."
Consultants last night showed computerized traffic projections of what effect the resulting four-way intersection would have on traffic conditions. According to models, the traffic — even when artificially increased about 10 percent to account for 20 years of population growth — would be about the same as it is now.
"In 20 years, the level of congestion will be the same as it is today," Atkins said. "Usually, that's the holy grail if you can get that. You can't always do it, but that's what we have."
New traffic signals would be installed and for the first time coordinated with traffic signals on each of the joining streets, allowing drivers to benefit from a "green band" so they can drive steadily through, instead of stopping and going every few hundred feet, the traffic consultants said. The traffic lights in the square will also switch faster — now it takes 136 seconds for the traffic lights around the square to go through a complete cycle; the proposal is to reduce that to 75 seconds.
"Increasing the speed of the lights increases the speed of the traffic through Peabody Square, and I think businesses will be upset by that," said Bill Toomey, a former city councilor who had a few criticisms of the proposal.
Toomey was also worried that planners hadn't done enough to allow safer passage for pedestrians through the square. Others lamented the loss of a handful of parking spots along the slip ramp next to the Sports Collectibles store at the corner of Main and Central streets.
City planners and the consultants said they were convinced that pedestrian safety would be much improved if their plan was implemented. Getting rid of the slip ramps and creating a four-way intersection reduces the number of crossings, shortens the distance traveled from one side of the street to the other, and makes navigating the busy intersection much simpler, Atkins said. The entire square would have a pedestrian signal, which would stop traffic in all directions to allow people to cross safely. Now, the slip ramps have no pedestrian signals.
Although the plan seems to have broad support, its future is tied to the proposed flood mitigation project — estimated to cost in the $18 million range — to install a large culvert underneath downtown to carry floodwater out to the North River. The proposed culvert would cut right through the square and would require construction crews to deconstruct the square and put it all back together. The culvert would be installed through the square in three separate phases, in which three traffic configurations would be built to accommodate traffic flow and the path of the culvert.
Since it's all being taken apart anyway, "we thought it would be a missed opportunity not to think about what should go back there," said Karen Sawyer, the director of planning and community development for the city.
The design elements of the proposed square would coincide with plans this summer to reconfigure Main Street from the square to the Salem line, turning it from four lanes to two; adding safety features, signs and trees; widening lanes and sidewalks; and synchronizing traffic lights. That separate $1.5 million project will be paid for by state grants, and work will start next month.
The new square would have similar landscaping, streetlights, new sidewalks, expanded bike lanes and other features consistent with the Main Street additions.
The City Council is expected to decide whether to fund the flood mitigation project sometime in May. If the council and Mayor Ted Bettencourt do decide to go forward with the project, the square project design will be completed in the summer and construction could begin in the fall of 2013.