Street planners plot future course

Street planners plot future course A Vermillion city employee strings lights and places a holiday banner on a Main Street light pole last Wednesday as downtown prepares for the Christmas season. Seasonal beautification, in the form of banners, flags, lights and celebration events, is one of several issues that will be addressed in the city's downtown streetscape plan. by David Lias Consultants with expertise in injecting new life in tired city surroundings descended on Vermillion Thursday for a marathon of public meetings.

Their goal: to gather input that will help them eventually write a Vermillion downtown streetscape plan.

Thursday's final public meeting was held in the Vermillion Public Library.

"This meeting tonight culminates a series of nine sessions that we've held today with different interest groups on the downtown streetscape plan," said Kevin Jacobson, who plays a dual role as chairman of the Clay County Historic Preservation Commission and chairman of the Downtown Vermillion Streetscape Planning Committee. "We've gotten some very worthwhile comments back from the interest groups."

Meetings were held with business owners, representatives of Vermillion Beautiful, the Vermillion City Council, the board of the Vermillion Area Chamber/Development Company, the local historic preservation commission and representatives of the University of South Dakota.

"Our committee has been working for a number of months now on this adventure, and we've gotten to a point where we've been able to hire a consulting team," Jacobson said. "We are letting them lead us down the planning path, and they will eventually produce an implementable document."

The planners

That team is made up of Jon Jacobson, a landscape architect with TSP, a multi-disciplined designed firm from Sioux Falls, and Christopher J. Della Vedova and Terry Berkbuegler, two streetscape planners with Brian Clark and Associates. Della Vedova is from the from the firm's Des Moines office; Berkbuegler is based at the Kansas City, MO location.

The three men were scheduled to meet with city employees the next day to gather even more input.

"Our main goal today and tomorrow is to listen," Jon Jacobson said Thursday night.

Berkbuegler said the he and the other consultants came to Vermillion with some goals in mind. They also, however, held S.W.O.T. sessions with all of the local groups they talked with Thursday.

S.W.O.T. is an acronym for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. "That made up the meat of our meetings and we had a back-and-forth dialogue for this plan moving forward and for the plans for the downtown area," Berkbuegler said.

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The purpose of the project, he said, is to develop a streetscape plan for downtown Vermillion that reinforces a visual image that's unique to the city.

"The downtown of a lot of communities aren't so much Anywhere U.S.A.," he said. "Rather, they are what many communities really get behind and support as their own place, so what we want to try to do is create an environment for the commercial business district that really is unique to Vermillion."

Goals for downtown

One goal is to increase visibility for the downtown area.

"When we came in as completely new people to this community, we had no idea where downtown was, and had no way of knowing where downtown was," Berkbuegler said.

One of the the consultants drove to Vermillion at night, and nearly got lost trying to find Main Street.

"He was ready to turn north toward the Dome," Berkbuegler said. "There is really nothing out on the highway that clearly identifies the way to downtown."

Any streetscape improvements designed and implemented in Vermillion's downtown district will be geared toward improving and sustaining the property values of the downtown area.

"We want it to be a viable commercial district," Berkbuegler said, "and we also want to encourage private investment and re-investment in the district."

Consultants will take the data they've gathered and map out the downtown district's future through a series of conceptual meetings.

"We're going to look at areas where there might be potential for future growth within or nearly adjacent to the downtown district," Berkbuegler said.

That process will include identifying land uses that would not be appropriate for the area, and things to target as potential new land uses for Vermillion's downtown.

"We're going to look at things like parking and circulation, whether there's enough parking, and whether it's a problem" Berkbuegler said.

Planners will also determine if there are enough open spaces in the downtown areas � places where people could sit, relax, converse with one another or enjoy an outdoor lunch.

The process

"We're going to take that information; we'll also be generating some general guidelines for the future development and re-development of properties as well was public improvements, such as street lighting and landscaping," he said.

A conceptual planning open house is tentatively scheduled for late January, 2004. A final planning draft open house will follow next March, and the final plans for Vermillion's downtown streetscape will presented to the Vermillion City Council in April.

"Along the course of the project, we will have a series of public meetings so that you are all kept up to speed and kept in the loop," Berkbuegler said. "This all about you and this is your project."

"This needs to be an implementable plan," Della Vedova said. "We can't go so far out there that nothing can never move forward because it's not realistic."

Public input

There were some common threads linking the many meetings the consultants held in Vermillion Thursday.

Time and again, they were told that what is good for downtown is also good for all of the community.

"Any additional people that you are bringing downtown are also spending money elsewhere in the city, such as Cherry Street," Della Vedova said.

The planners also heard of the need for more viable businesses in the city's downtown district.

"Full storefronts is what that got to," he said. "There are a few storefronts down there that are empty, and we need to get those filled up."

Citizens expressed a desire to see more color and life downtown, by providing more opportunities for art, and increasing the number of flowers and other plantings.

They would also like to see a more intuitive connection between Cherry Street and downtown, and the USD campus and downtown.

"There are a lot of businesses downtown that cater to the students and we figure there are more opportunities for more traditional businesses to also get students downtown," Della Vedova said. "We need to emphasize that connection both through coordination and communication."

The consulting team was told of the importance of identifying the sources of capital to pay for the downtown improvements, and also encourage private investment into the district's buildings.

Downtown's strengths

Vermillion's downtown may contain several empty storefronts, but it also possesses areas of strength, Della Vedova said.

"There is a strength in that the students do have areas of interests in the CD shop, the coffee shop and the bars," he said. "We think there's a strength in the existing architecture downtown. Most of the communities we go into do not have this level of architecture."

The city's downtown district is a center for banking, government and the post office.

"These are all reasons that people always have to come down to this area," Della Vedova said.

He added that the fact that downtown parking is often identified as a problem is actually good news.

"That's a great thing," Della Vedova said. "That means people are down there. It's still an active, viable space that we're just trying to improve upon."

Weak spots

Della Vedova said he and the other consultants heard Thursday that there are some very dedicated volunteer groups in the Vermillion community.

"Yet, we did hear of a certain level of community apathy," he said. "Maybe you've heard things indicating that, on a community-wide basis, people don't think things like this are going to move forward.

"We're going to do everything we can," he said, "to make sure this moves forward and is successful."

Better signage and solutions to parking problems need to be addressed.

A lack of quality dining facilities was also identified as a weakness by some meeting participants.

"That's not an insult to current restaurants or dining facilities," Jon Jacobson said. "That just means that there seems like a pretty common level of places to eat. We heard things from students and the public, who said 'I don't really have a nice place to take a date,' and we also heard comments from adults who stated they have to drive to Yankton to eat out at Minerva's or somewhere to have a really good place to eat."

USD students who met with the consultants indicated there could be better communication between downtown stores and the university.

"Things that we've heard from the students a lot was 'I never knew this stuff was downtown,'" Della Vedova said. "We've talked to other people who have said you can spend a lot of time in Vermillion and think Cherry Street is it."

Opportunities

Striving for greater restaurant diversity and for development of the second floor spaces in many of downtown's buildings topped the list of identified opportunities for the district.

"Above these retail shops, what can we do keep people living downtown and activating that space, which also helps with the vandalism issue," Della Vedova said. "When there's people down there that are living there and taking ownership, they are able to see these things and keep an eye on them."

Crazy Days, USD freshman orientation and holiday promotions are also ways to inject new life into the downtown district.

"We heard that the university has Coyote Cash," Della Vedova said. "Let the students bring that downtown. Let the students spend that in the downtown businesses."

New business opportunities that may be pursued, he said, include "incubators." Student incubators are businesses run by university students, as part of their curriculum, that are appropriate for the campus population.

"Not only would we like to see students living downtown and adults living downtown," Jon Jacobson said, "we'd also like to see businesses formed that aren't necessarily retail oriented, but may be in the area of technology, for example. An incubator could be set up to help the community foster some of those new businesses, and give them a chance to start without having to jump into the world with all of its harsh realities right away."

Threats

A poor economy was identified as a threat to the streetscape proposal. Poor economic times, Della Vedova said, could mean it would be more difficult to secure capital to make improvements.

"The idea that's it's never been done before," he added, is also seen as a threat. "There's a fear of change."

He again identified community apathy as a threat to the process.

"People in general are just risk adverse," he said. "We're expending capital to make improvements, and sometimes that's scares people."

The consultants also said they heard comments from Vermillion citizens who fear that downtown conflicts with what is happening on Cherry Street, and that those uses don't co-exist peacefully.

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