Stark Street pop-up imagines possibilities

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BENNINGTON — Next weekend, June 16 and 17, the Stark Street park will be re-imagined with temporary amenities, such as trails, play structures, seating areas, arts installations, and more.

Activities will be ongoing from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. each day. "On the day of the pop-up park, bike and pedestrian lanes, a crosswalk, art installations, temporary playground equipment, and other activities will attract neighbors to the site to experience the park anew and provide input on how it can be improved in coming years," reads the event's website.

The process was kick-started by a $3,000 grant from the AARP designed to spark communications about what to do with the play area. The project is being organized by Bennington Community Development Director Zirwat Chowdhury and Catherine Bryars of the Bennington County Regional Commission.

Residents will be asked what aspects they like and dislike about the pop-up park, using dot charts and disposable cameras that will be made available.

Chowdhury said that, through consultation with the BCRC, she believes that the bike and pedestrian lane on Dewey Street, which was painted on Wednesday, is the first of its kind in Bennington County.

The Stark Street Park, which is off of Dewey St. just north of the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, was gifted to the town in November 1959 by the trustees of the Dewey estate, with the requirement that it be used as a "playground for children," according to the deed. As recently as 2010, the town converted the park's basketball court into a skating rink during the winter month. Today, while the town still maintains the park, it largely just uses a shed on the property for storage.

The grant is part of AARP Vermont's Placemaking Grant program, of which Bennington was one of three recipients announced this week, alongside Winooski and St. Johnsbury. "Although largely in disuse, Stark Street Playground's proximity to downtown Bennington, outdoor trails, several high-density residential neighborhoods, and a number of health care facilities and programs for seniors (such as SVHC's Center for Living and Rehabilitation and United Counseling Service's Elder Care Program) identify it as a critical locus for community gathering, recreation, and wellness," reads the grant application, which was written by Chowdhury and Bryars.

Bryars said that the project's coordinators have already had two meetings with local residents to discuss possible uses for the park. She described the feedback as "positive overall," and said that some expressed concern about increased traffic on the road, while others want to see the park return to being a community resource. She said that the organizers were focusing on uses for the park that center around pedestrian and bike access, so as not to create too much additional vehicle traffic on the dead-end street.

"We're trying to be respectful of the quiet neighborhood street character of Stark St., so we're encouraging people either to walk or to cycle and to park, if possible, at the Elks parking lot or at the town lot behind the town offices," said Chowdhury to those interested in attending this weekend's festivities. "The hospital has agreed to let us use some parts of their parking lot as well."

Chowdhury said that after the pop-up demonstration and the ensuing conversations, the town will have a better vision on how to move forward on re-vitalizing the park, whether than means applying for grants to install new sidewalks and crosswalks (Stark Street currently has none), installing playground equipment, or something else. "We didn't want to jump into a plan," she said.

Bryars said the group is still looking for more volunteers to help during set-up and on the days of the event. To sign up, visit starkstreetpark.weebly.com, or for questions about volunteering, call Kayla Becker at 802-681-8469.

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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