Streetscape plan causing
downtown parking worries By David Lias
Plain Talk Nearly five years have passed since members of the Vermillion community gave overwhelming approval to pursuing streetscape improvements that would inject new life into the downtown shopping district, especially along Main Street. Now those improvements appear to be a source of discord among several individuals who operate businesses along Main Street. They worry that the streetscape design will take away some of downtown's rare parking areas. Several businesspeople also claimed, at Monday's Vermillion City Council meeting, that no one from the city ever met with them to describe how the streetscape design would impact their businesses. The idea of improving Vermillion's downtown with a state-of-the-art master plan for streetscape improvements has been on the books since 2004. In May of that year, consultants Brian Clark of Brian Clark and Associates, a landscape architecture firm from Des Moines, IA, and Jon Jacobson, a landscape architect with TSP of Sioux Falls, described the plan at a special city council meeting, and estimated what it would cost to complete the work by breaking it down into phases over a seven year period. Expenditures during some years, in their estimates, would be higher than others. The total cost for the seven years of work, according to 2004's estimates, was $2.185 million. Some of the early steps of the streetscape project – including traffic signals at a downtown intersection with an historical look, and spruced-up stone crosswalks – are already in place. It's the next step of the streetscape project that brought several upset people to Monday's city council meeting. It involves the construction of a "pocket parks" in the downtown shopping district. Richard Sunde, who operates an insurance business from a building at 16 E. Main Street, said he and several other downtown business owners are concerned about parking being taken away. "It would involve three spots between my office and the (movie) theatre, and as I understand it, the eight spots along the Market Street (Café) Main Street area," Sunde said. He said he also concerned about the length of the pocket park between his office and the theatre. "I understand that a contract has been let, and I also understand that contracts can be modified and changed," Sunde said. "Downtown Vermillion has always had problems with parking, and in these tough economic times, if we take away parking, we're taking away business." He said the parking park originally was designed to stop at the end of his building. It now will go clear to the back of the alley, Sunde said. "The reason that's important is now with the new city hall, all of the parking has been taken away — the overnight parking on the north side of the alley — and as I understand from talking with Mr. Prescott (the city manager), there will be no overnight parking in any of the city lots. What we will have left is at least five spaces at the end of my building to the alley that have been used by my tenants, by Mr. French's tenants, and by people who have been going to the theatre," he said. "I would like to see that revisited, but the most important part is to not take away from our downtown parking. We need the parking," Sunde said. "The parks are wonderful, let's have them, let's make them beautiful. And I understand this is not an easy issue for you, and contracts have been let. But I'd like you to consider it." Tom French, owner of The Charcoal Lounge at 8 E. Main Street, said he was approached about a year ago by people describing the development of the pocket park. "I think what they're trying to do is great," he said. "They're trying to make Vermillion beautiful. But when I talked with them, they never really mentioned anything about taking away parking. The parking in Vermillion has been an issue for the last 20 years I've been in business." During the times when an excellent movie is being shown at the theatre nearby, the "downtown area is just flooded," French said. Customers of banks located near his business, he said, also utilize a great deal of parking. "I know contracts have been signed (for the streetscape work), but if we could keep those spots on Main Street open, it surely would be appreciated," French said. "We're opposing the elimination of several parking spots in the central shopping district," Paul Hasse told the aldermen. He noted that in front of Hollywood Video, the city wants to eliminate three parking spots, and the streetscape program would eliminate additional spots at the intersection of Market and Main streets. "These people have an investment downtown, they work there, and they have customers coming into their places," he said. "It appears to me that the city council's decision to do this was based on a streetscape committee report. But the committee didn't contact people about the elimination of parking." Hasse said the streetscape program is based on incomplete and inaccurate information. "I think you have a perfect right to re-visit this program, and you should do that," he said. City Manager John Prescott noted that the streetscape plan was developed in 2003-04, and it was presented to the city council, which approved it. "At that point in time, the challenge had been that there wasn't any funding available to make it happen," he said. The city received a federal grant in 2006 which pays for 80 percent of the cost of the streetscape project. "So we began the process to acquire the land where the public plaza is at." The streetscape project design plan was a topic of several city council meetings in recent years as the plan has progressed, Prescott said. The most recent meetings were held in December 2008. At that meeting, a bid was rejected and a new bid opening date was set for Jan. 22, 2009. That bid was awarded in February 2009 to Slattery construction. "We did advertise this; we tried to make people aware of it," he said. Prescott also mentioned that he and other city officials visited with several affected business owners. The plan presented in May 2005 includes a detailed analysis of downtown's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The area's strong points include enthusiasm of the public for change and the existing downtown architecture. Weaknesses include perceived lack of parking, vacant storefronts, vandalism and litter. Opportunities identified include downtown promotional events, and attempts to encourage second floor residential living above many of the Main Street businesses. Threats to the streetscape plan include apathy and lack of vision, lack of capital improvement monies and conflict with existing Cherry Street development. In May 2005, Clark repeated advice that he has given at streetscape development meetings held earlier in 2005 here. "We do recommend that you move something forward that is small and can be easily done," he said. "We think that there has been energy developed in the community, and we think that if people can see one thing coming out of this pretty soon, we think that they will feel pretty good about it. "If it's something small and simple, we think that will be a great start," Clark said. The process for developing the streetscape master plan began last October. A highlight of the process occurred Nov. 20-21, 2004 when consultants held day-long marathon meetings with groups of stakeholders in the city's downtown, gathering feedback and ideas. The vision of the plan includes expanding bump-outs/nodes, unique pavement, seatwalls, fixed benches, sculpture and landscape improvements at certain intersections downtown. Other suggested improvements include updating storefronts, pedestrian scale lighting, new concrete walks with paved borders, new signage/banners, and landscape improvements. • The master plan seeks to • create an urban environment that supports and encourages an active street presence and makes downtown a unique district in Vermillion. • establish an appropriate image and improve aesthetics for the study area. • create a "sense of arrival" to downtown Vermillion. • enhance safe and friendly pedestrian linkages within downtown and to campus/Cherry Street. • focus on the unique and historic character of downtown in all details of the design.
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