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EDITORIAL: Our Under-Appreciated "Ace in the Hole"

Taken just before the dedication of Kilbourn Place, this photograph frames a view of Main Street, giving a sense of removal from our daily worries, a chance to see our everyday struggles from a different vantage point, being a step removed from the daily grind, offering a link to our shared history of Groton. It’s almost as if the Stage Manager from Thormton Wilder’s play "Our Town" is about to step before us and talk about our place in the universe. "So—people a thousand years from now—this is the way we were in the provinces north of New York at the beginning of the twentieth century.—This is the way we were: in our growing up and in our marrying and in our living and in our dying."


Groton’s main drag - extending roughly from CVS to the end of Mill Run Plaza - will experience dramatic changes in the next five years. Among the many changes will be Groton Inn’s build-out of the newly-acquired Waters property, the opening of Kilbourn Place on the former Donelan’s property, the sale and re-use of the former Bank of America building, and a public initiative for commercial and housing development at the lower end of Station Avenue.
     Besides all this commercial development, a large rental and housing condo development on Gratuity Road just outside the Center is gathering the necessary permits to start construction. All these projects will bring a significant increase in Main Street traffic. And these projects are just the ones we know about. Behind the scenes there are rumors of certain Main Street properties changing hands and other properties being converted for commercial use.
     Our challenge will be to accommodate all the cars streaming through and around the Center without destroying its memorable allure. Groton downtown’s mix of commercial, religious, community and government buildings spanning three centuries gives our Town Center a special character. It is a tableau of American history, a place appreciated for its beauty, heritage, dynamism, community engagement and access to services.
     How can we preserve the dynamism of our Town Center without vitiating its eclectic appeal? Unless we come up with creative strategies to mitigate the traffic problem, we may experience a level of chaos and gridlock that turns a visit to the Center from a pleasurable encounter to a trial.
     Today, the Center works reasonably well with the "controlled chaos" of downtown traffic flowing through and around the Center. But a question niggles at the back of the brain.
     With significant new development, will traffic levels reach a point where functional flow of vehicles along Main street reaches occasional gridlock, thus making downtown Groton a place to be avoided?  Will residents and visitors avoid going there?
     We believe that there are creative ways to manage all the new traffic if the town plans ahead, recognizing and creatively taking advantage its biggest "ace in the hole." Gus Widmayer, the owner and developer of Kilbourn Place made the prescient observation that the value of his parking lot might be equivalent or greater in value to the building itself.
     We believe it is axiomatic that managing the "negative" space in the Center – the open parking spaces - will determine the success of the "positive" space - the commercial buildings. Already, we are doing a good job tucking small parking areas in out-of-the-way spaces around the Center, mostly used by employees of local businesses giving customers access to the best parking.
     As useful as this strategy has been, it may be reaching saturation. We need to think of more organized ways to handle a larger parking and access problem.
     So what is our ace in the hole? The greatest parking asset in the Center is owned and controlled by the town. It is the Prescott School parking lot and the large area behind the school, an area that could be developed for municipal parking.
     If Gus Widmayer’s observation is correct, it may be that the value of the Prescott School parking potential exceeds the value of the building itself, especially if this parking can be leveraged as a central access point for pedestrians visiting the Center, making management of convenient access to downtown workable even with a great increase in traffic.
     It may be that keeping the Prescott School property in town hands will prove to have been one of Town Meeting’s best decisions.
     Let’s start thinking about creative ways to leverage the negative space at Prescott to enhance the positive space on the length of Main Street.
Two Ideas
     Here are two worthwhile but unconventional ideas that could be in the mix:
1. Does it make sense to provide access to Prescott parking from the back of the building via Broadmeadow, thus allowing people to get to Main street business and government buildings without actually going onto Main Street in a car? And,
2. A local engineer has said that a two-level parking structure could be built at very reasonable cost at the back of Prescott. There are lots of ways to make our Ace-in-the hole work to make Main Street work for all in the future.
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