LACONIA — Measured in square miles, Laconia is among the smallest cities in the state, but Plan NH, a volunteer team of architects, engineers and consultants , has highlighted the shortcomings of the transportation network between and within the three major components of the city — downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs — in a report submitted to the Planning Department last week.
Plan NH was engaged to contribute to the project called "Re-Imagine Laconia," undertaken with the support of the Orton Family Foundation and New Hampshire Charitable Foundation in anticipation of updating the city's Master Plan in 2017. In August, the team met with city officials, major stakeholders and community leaders, toured downtown, Lakeport and The Weirs, and held a design charette to sound the public.
The team identified four challenges, of which the dispersion of attractions and amenities among what a similar team from United States Environmental Protection Agency identified in 2007 as "the three villages" applied to the entire city. At The Weirs, the team found that the "economic push-pull of Bike Week creates a complex development environment." Downtown, they said, bears the legacy of urban renewal as well as serving as the regional hub, "absorbing the problems of surrounding towns." And Lakeport, riven by Union Avenue, they said lacks "a strong identity."
"What struck the team on its orientation tour," the report noted, " was how difficult it could be to get from place to place, and thus how unlikely it would be for a resident to go from one place where he or she lived or worked to another. Put another way, it continued, "because of the weak transportation network in and around Laconia, many residents do not benefit directly from the wonderful amenities in their own city." Specifically, the report recommends a transportation strategy that complements reliance on motor vehicles with sidewalks, bicycle lanes and public transportation.
The team recommends not only completing the Winnipesaukee-Opechee-Winnisquam (WOW) Trail, but also incorporating it into a wider system of pathways and lanes. As a tourist destination, The Weirs would be better served by an infrastructure more conducive to foot traffic. Calming and realigning traffic, accompanied by enhanced lighting and landscaping, on Beacon Street West, especially at Veterans Square, and Beacon Street East would provide a more welcoming environment for pedestrians downtown. At Lakeport, the team suggested a "pedestrian centered intersection" at the junction of Union Avenue and Elm Street while encouraging commercial development that would create a focal point for the neighborhood.
"Few communities in our state have an identity so complex," the team remarked, suggesting that each of the three "villages" has a distinct character. While they noted that each offers "extraordinary amenities," they explained their focus on transportation by stressing "these amenities must be accessible to all or they will not serve to attract or retain residents and visitors."
Planning Director Shanna Saunders was pleased with the emphasis on "connectivity" and said "it is always valuable to have a new set of eyes take a look." She said that report will inform the section of the Master Plan addressing land use.
The full report is available online at www.reimaginelaconia.org and will be the subject of forums and meetings to be scheduled at different venues in the city.