First in “Site Unseen” Series! – Winooski, VT

Site Unseen #1: Winooski, VT Traffic Circle

Rotary Park, Winooski, VT

While visiting my brother in Stowe, Vermont I stumbled across this gem of a town with a big, green, but under-used public square in the middle of the downtown traffic circle.  Coming from a New York perspective I think any multi-acre piece of greenery should be revered, and this one definitely needs to be because it is both the cross-roads to, and the center of, this little town with big potential.

Fig 1

Winooski is a historic mill town two miles outside Burlington, Vermont.  It appears to be in the early phases of a growth spurt, with some new construction, a few new retail shops, and a couple of trendy bars and restaurants which recently opened.  Interesting fact: in the 1970’s, a group of town planners came up with the idea to cover Winooski with a giant dome – to protect it from the harsh winters and save on energy, and pursued federal funding for the idea for several years.  Click here for more on that.

What’s great about Rotary Park:

Overall, the town is on the upswing.  Several mills have been converted into residential, office, and commercial use – beginning in the 1980’s up through current conversions.

  • The town has historic bones with gorgeous structures.
  • It is within commuting distance to Burlington, where University of Vermont students struggle to pay rising rents.
  • It is a compact and walkable downtown and has wonderful access to nature.
  • The park has views and can hear the murmur of the adjacent Winooski River.
  • Increasingly, more storefronts have opened in recent years, with the most recent addition earlier this year of Misery Loves Company (MLC) Bakeshop (the reputation of which is what drew us to the town in the first place).
  • There are new developments downtown, adding dense nearby housing.
  • It is a direct and useful path to get from one side of the downtown to the other.
  • Nice water / rock wall feature in the summer.

 What’s not so great about Rotary Park:

The Hard and Fast Realities Let’s start first with the things we can’t change. 

  • We can’t change the weather here, which is winter 13 months a year (Ok, Vfig2ermont has lovely summers – but winters are long and harsh).
  • We can’t really change the population in the near term which is just 7,200.
  • We can’t change building heights, which are low for the width of the space.  Buildings should be roughly one half to one third as tall as the width across the street from building façade to building façade. (See illustration to the right.[1])  The buildings on the west side of the park are roughly 40’ and up to 60’ on the east side of the park while the width across the park and rotary is approximately 250’. That’s roughly a 1:5 ratio; significantly higher than the suggested 1:2 or 1:3 ratio that makes humans feel enclosed, safe, and comfortable.

The Variables – Now the fun part, the things we can change:

  • Going There – There is no real reason to use the park.  The scenery is better elsewhere, people watching is better closer to the shops, and benches are well-scattered throughout the small downtown.  Why would anyone use it?
    • Often the best answers to these questions are ones of necessity and simplicity. First, people will use the park because it is the easiest way to get from one side of town to the other.  Put anchors on both sides (the west side already has quite a few good shops) and make that center corridor through the park the activity spine.  Locate high-density activity there, so that area will feel vibrant.  This is where we want to see college kids playing guitar with their case open to make some extra beer money, people eating their meals, movable chairs, community billboards, etc. fig 3
    • Food – people love food trucks, especially in nice weather and they will usually plop down as close as possible to the truck to enjoy the food while it is hot.  An outdoor  snack bar with seating and strung lights or a pavilion would also likely draw a crowd.  Or, a smoothie cart, ice cream truck, or outdoor beer garden could add variety and interest.
    • Programming – a playground, yoga classes, a fenced dog run, hackey sack competitions or outdoor club meetings. Riverwalk tours could start from this location, farmers markets or flea markets could use the space, girl scouts could sell cookies, little leagues or school classes could host fund raisers. Town officials could manage a sign-up list for all these activities and uses. These are just a few ideas of how to get people into the space, but it is important to talk to the people who would use it to see what they want in the space. In fact, that could be the first activity – let people mark post-its with ideas and tack these on bulletin boards.
  • Getting There – It’s too hard mentally and physically to cross to the park (with too little incentive once you get there).  Pedestrians are  easily deterred – they wander where it is easy. Traffic, stop lights, steps – some of the simplest elements will stop a pedestrian if he or she isn’t  on a mission.  Here, the roads are wide, the traffic fast and crosswalks faded. The park is also slightly above the level of the surrounding sidewalks, adding mental resistance.

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Figure 4 Pedestrian Crossing – West (Google Images)

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Figure 5 Pedestrian Crossing – East (Google Images)

  • The west side of the park, near the smaller-scale retail, has a nice protected parking lane with a bumped out sidewalk (see Figure 3) – a great addition.
  • Could traffic be reduced to one lane here, or on the other side?  Can crossing times have audio indicators as well? Trees could be added around the sidewalk and entrance to the park to increase the feeling of height and decrease the percieved distance.  The lovely brick paver sidewalks could be extended across the road, leading right into (and across) the park.  Or, at the very least, the cross walks could be repainted in bright colors – maybe a special arts project.
  • Staying There – The space isn’t very comfortable.  As mentioned above, the height to width ratio feels very low; the space feels exposed and not at all cozy.  Adding fast-growing trees to the perimeter of the park would make it feel like a more secluded, protected oasis than a leftover middle of a traffic circle.
  • More useful, plentiful, and creative outdoor furniture could be added.  Right now the fixed benches make conversation very hard and are not flexible.  People like to adjust their seating for themselves, based on who and how many people they are with – movable chairs are really much more inviting than benches.  Perhaps something that mimics an outdoor classroom or ampitheater for medium sized performances, or an area of big trees that provide some shade.
  • Incorporating one or two areas of shade, thick grass for sunbathing, and paved areas with plenty of movable chairs would go a long way.
  • Water features are always fun – people like to touch them, play in them, listen to them.  There is a water feature now, but it is much more decorative than interactive.  Here is a great pinterest board by Dorith van Gestel on water in public spaces that captures the way humans like to interact with water.

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Taking Action

Rotary Park can be a great asset to this growing town.  People  are drawn to towns with vibrant public spaces.  It seems Winooski’s population is beginning to grow – perhaps a result of Burlington’s rising rents.  If the town wants to maximize this opportunity as well as growth potential for commercial and retail sectors – turning this park into a busy, talked-about location is one of the easiest and most effective ways to do so. And once some action is taken, residents, business owners and visitors will pipe in with ideas of their own – placemaking at its best!

Rebecca Disbrow

Senior Project Planner, Civic Moxie LLC


Site Unseen is CivicMoxie’s bi-weekly blog column which features under-utilized as well as vibrant public spaces across the Northeast. CivicMoxie is a consulting firm of planners, designers and real estate consultants who believe great public spaces have enormous impact on the economic as well as social health of communities.

References: source for building height to street width ratio graphic.

Illustration Source:  Community, Design + Architecture