NOTES (9-5-01)


High Street  Advisory Committee

Under Mayor Mead


Present: Karen Kelley, Bob Uhlig, Walter Clay, Geordie Vining.


Scenic Byway Initiative: Geordie gave an update on the status of the Essex National Heritage Commission’s (ENHC) Scenic Byway Initiative for Rt. 1A and 133.  Nan Hagen, the consultant, has apparently almost finished Newburyport’s section of her report and is working on the other communities.  The report is intended to essentially characterize what is scenic, historic, positive about the corridor – not what is wrong with it, as the previous workshops had focused on – and she has had to gather more information than anticipated.  After she has drafted a description of Newburyport’s downtown loop, she will send it to us for review and potential editing, and then we can get it to the City Council for approval.  She still needs to meet with some of the other towns to answer questions regarding potential negative impacts of the scenic byway designation, but her meetings are going well.  The timeframe and extent of funding remain somewhat indistinct.  Nan intends to finish her narrative report by the end of October, and then go to Senator Bruce Tarr regarding sponsorship of a 3-sentence bill to supply state designation.  If that is turned around quickly, she will then write a federal grant application for ENHC to conduct a mile-by-mile corridor management plan.  She thinks she can write that in short order, but does not know the federal review time.  Assuming it is quick (which may be a dubious assumption), then she is hoping to hire a consultant to conduct a sizeable planning study ($200K+) at the beginning of next year.  Again, she does not know how long such a plan will take to develop, and my guess is a minimum of 12-18 months.  She is still trying to contact MHD and MVPC to clarify the extent and likelihood of municipal grants once that process is completed.  Overall, we appear to be a couple of years away from seeing whatever potential benefits might flow from this exercise.  Geordie will distribute the draft report when he receives it to the committee, and generally attempt to stay in touch with Nan in the coming weeks and months.


Overhead electric lines: The group briefly discussed the dilemma of dealing with the overhead lines.  All recognize the monumental nature of the task of actually burying some or all of the lines.  Stephanie had suggested at the last meeting that she would attempt to explore the issue some more, but it is unknown whether she has made any progress on that front.  Walter suggested an initiative to encourage and aid adjacent landowners in the planting of trees on private property away from the wires, in order to provide a better future for the tree-lined character of the street.  Geordie reported on Mass. Electric’s apparent intention to take down a large healthy maple at #296 – which is growing in a planting strip, not impacting the sidewalk, and has grown up above the existing lines – due to their desire to install a higher line.  The Mayor, after hearing about this, has apparently saved the tree and asked for Mass. Electric to articulate and clarify their tree pruning and removal wish-list for the length of High Street.  In general, it would seem that no trees should have to come down.  At a minimum, the tree ordinance must be enforced, which requires replacement with a combination of trees equaling the diameter of the one removed, and daily fines for violations.  Walter raised the question of potentially organizing volunteer arborists, but Bob noted that it is very unlikely that volunteers can provide the level of scrutiny and vigilance required to address these issues properly.  Geordie will continue talking with the Mayor about how to approach the defense, care, and maintenance of the trees in a more comprehensive fashion.


Sidewalk inventory: Geordie reported on his and Stephanie’s sidewalk inventory, which they conducted during three afternoons in recent weeks.  Comments on each block were recorded on individual sheets, and the most pertinent information transferred to a base map.  One-third of the sidewalks are brick, with the remaining 2/3 a combination of concrete and asphalt.  The brick, clearly more aesthetically appealing, is generally concentrated in the south end and more on the northern side of the street.  The sidewalks towards the southeastern end are also clearly in worse shape in terms of buckling, ponding, settling, cracking, etc.  The sidewalks are highly variable in terms of their condition and their materials – a number of blocks contain apparently random combinations of brick, asphalt, and concrete, planting strips that start and stop, varying widths, etc.  There are very few “clearance” problems.  Most of the curbstones appear to have separated from one another, and the curb reveal – which is important for drainage as well as separating the pedestrian sidewalks from the road – ranges from 0 inches to 3, 4, even 6 inches in the same block.  Many, though not all of the sidewalks, are without planting strips and are very wide (10-11 feet), completely covering the roots of the associated street trees and making their lives much more difficult.  Approximately 50 of the trees along High Street, out of a total of 300+, are causing buckling, cracking, breaking, heaving, etc. of the sidewalks.  Each situation is unique: some of the trees are clearly unhealthy or dying, while many are vigorous; some of the impacts are relatively benign and still allow the required clearance, while some have destroyed the width of the sidewalk; some could be addressed by acquiring a temporary easement from homeowners to route the sidewalk around the tree on front lawns, while others could potentially have the sidewalks ramped over their roots, while others may be more difficult to address.  A member of the disabilities commission suggested that perhaps a couple of “bump-outs” could be installed on the street-side for a small number of problematic healthy trees that would bring the sidewalk around on the other side.


In addition, about ten of the driveways along the ridge in the southeast appear to have the cross-slope problem of being steeper than the regulations allow for a wheelchair.  Geordie again reported on the potential parallel model in Marblehead, where the municipality did a street and sidewalk repair project in its historic downtown.  The consultant put together an application to the AAB for 16 variances, primarily based on the sidewalks (and streets) being too narrow at various points due to the historic spatial relationships to allow for complete compliance with all slope, clearance, etc. issues without impacting private property, expensive reconfigurations, etc.  The AAB granted all 16 variances.  Geordie believes that if these cross-slope areas can’t be brought fully into compliance, then a similar argument could be made to the AAB especially if the alternative is a large scale earth moving operation that involves retaining walls, takings of private property, and shifting the historic spatial relationships.  However, a fair amount of detailed engineering design has to be done prior to pursuing an AAB application like Marblehead’s.  Geordie hopes to talk with other communities that have dealt with similar issues.


Subsurface information: We are still waiting for MHD’s Materials Section to approve the boring program.  Once that is finally approved, it should apparently only take about two weeks to get the contractor scheduled, do the work, do the lab testing, and get the results in hand.  We will then know what the layers of pavement are, and whether a deep milling and overlay is feasible.  The drainage system does not appear to be a significant problem, according to Dan Lynch, with problems arising from the lack of curb reveal in some areas as well as one block that lacks catch-basins.  Not only does a full-depth reconstruction of the road, as originally proposed, carry with it a greater load of regulations to negotiate (e.g., the elevation of the road at the ridge), but it would have a very significant disruptive impact.  The consultant estimated that it could not be accomplished in one construction season (April-November), and thus could take two years to complete, probably with much re-routing.  The milling and overlay approach, on the other hand, could be accomplished in a couple of months.  Geordie will keep trying to push for gaining this subsurface information in the near future.


Project scope options: The group then discussed options for the project’s scope to recommend to the Mayor and explore with MHD, all of which the Mayor is open to.  As part of any project, the Mayor, the advisory committee, and most of the public agree on the following for any project (beyond improving the pavement): 1) keep existing road footprint; 2) no ridge alteration; 3) attempt to design acceptable 3-roads reconfiguration; 4) upgrade signals and establish pedestrian school crossing lights; 5) establish striping to narrow travel lanes and slow vehicles; 6) minimize unnecessary impact on healthy street trees; 7) install planting strips to sustain street trees, narrowing sidewalks as needed; 8) keep brick sidewalks brick, and repair using existing pavers as much as possible; 9) use concrete on other sidewalks (no asphalt); 10) explore establishing a funding mechanism with homeowners for upgrading some sidewalks to brick; 11) ensure full public review of preliminary plans.


An option that only repairs the road and does not address the sidewalks at all appears to be undesirable by most of the public, most, if not all, of the advisory committee, and the Mayor.  The group agreed that the pressure to fix the sidewalks should not be let up.  However, the scope of the project should be determined in the context of “the sidewalks desperately need work but the road needs work even more desperately,” as Bob noted.  The group discussed variations from pavement repair and full sidewalk repair, to selected sidewalk repair, to a pavement repair (mill & overlay) and production of a complete engineered design for future sidewalk repair with an implementation and financing plan.  While not ideal, the latter option is attractive due to the potential to allow the pavement to be repaired by next year without the presumably more complicated sidewalk design delaying it (instead proceeding on a parallel track).  The group is leaning towards this option, and Geordie will report this back to the Mayor.


Walter asked that we try to determine future plans for utility trenches and how they are scheduled, since if the road had been fixed in the last couple of years it would have been significantly impacted by all the work done on water and gas lines recently.  Geordie will also explore that issue.


Primary questions waiting for clarification include: is the mill and overlay approach feasible, and could the pavement be milled deeply enough since a conventional overlay would eliminate the curb in a number of areas; is ramping over roots a truly feasible and aesthetically appealing solution; is MHD willing to fully support the consultant’s case-by-case design of sidewalk areas that might be AAB compliance issues, and arrive at an acceptable funding plan.  Geordie will work with the Mayor, MHD, the consultant, and others on clarifying these issues.


Next meeting: The Committee is scheduled to meet next on Wednesday evening, October 3, 2001 at 7:00 p.m., at the police station conference room.


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