January 23, 2013 - Streetscape was certainly the hot topic of discussion Monday night as the Oxford Downtown Development Authority (DDA) heard support, opposition and concerns related to the proposed $4.65 million conceptual plan.
"I'm here to tell the board that I'm very comfortable with the concept of asking our DDA to pursue a streetscape-style program at whatever level. I don't know where (the cost) is going to settle . . . whether it's $5,000 or $4 million," said Robb Leland, a village resident and owner of the downtown business ArtCapsule.
"Whatever that budget could become and however we can finance it – hopefully, largely through grant dollars – I want to see something done . . . I've been here a year-and-a-half now and I would like to see us do something about this problem of not having a nice walkable downtown."
Lloyd Coe, owner of Ed's Broadway Gift & Costume in Lake Orion, presented a different view of things given his downtown redid its streetscape in 2011. He wanted to give the Oxford DDA his take on streetscapes based on his experience.
"I don't think it was worth it," Coe said. "Even now, people have asked me, 'Have you had more customers coming into the store?' We really don't. It's probably about the same as it was prior to the streetscape
"I know we still have a lot of empty buildings down there. There's at least a half-a-dozen empty buildings," he noted.
In February 2012, the Oxford DDA was presented a conceptual plan to revamp and improve the downtown's streetscape in order to make it safer for pedestrians, more attractive and identifiable to visitors, and help calm the tremendous volume of vehicular traffic that rolls up and down Washington St. (M-24) on a daily basis.
Since then, the DDA has been exploring how it wants to proceed and looking into ways to obtain funding for the project through grants and public-private partnerships. That's why the DDA hired the services of a grant writer for $12,000.
DDA Board Member Ed Hunwick noted that hiring a grant writer was "the most logical money we have spent so far."
"You're not going to be able to determine if you can come up with the funds unless you can go out and try to find them," he said. "We have never talked about doing anything with this project other than (finding out) what monies we could come up with through grants and other funding."
Monday night's discussion was prompted by the criticisms of the streetscape plan expressed by a group of property owners and business owners at the Jan. 7 village council meeting. This group, which claims to represent 24 property owners representing 50 properties, demanded the DDA stop spending money pursuing the streetscape.
Those who spoke in support of the streetscape cited the need to increase pedestrian safety as the main reason.
"It is not at all calming to walk downtown," said Oxford Schools Superintendent Dr. William Skilling, who's office is located downtown at 10 N. Washington St. "If (my wife and I) walk downtown, it's through the back parking lot. I don't even like to walk down in front of the stores because it just doesn't feel safe. So, when we do our summer walks, it's behind the shopping area . . . It's very dangerous walking downtown."
"I rarely see pedestrians walking downtown. It's like a ghost town," he noted.
DDA Board Member Tom Jones, owner of Funky Monkey Toys, agreed.
"It is terrifying to walk down these streets," he said. "My business draws hundreds – depending on the month, sometimes thousands – of children into my store. When the children make their way towards the Washington (Street) exit, mothers scream in terror, 'Get away from that door!' That's what I see on a daily basis.
"I had 16 3-year-olds come to my store for a field trip. After they left the store, they were going to the (historical) museum to continue the field trips. The chaperones had these poor children scraping their hands along the Burdick (Street) wall of the museum because they were terrified. I looked at these children scraping their hands (and) arms on that wall so they don't get hit by a car (and) I said, 'We live in a war-zone here.'"
Jones noted although the speed limit downtown is 30 miles per hour, he's observed vehicles travelling as high as 50 mph.
"If you've never heard those brakes on those trucks when they're trying to avoid a pedestrian, when they're trying to avoid hitting a child, when they're slamming those brakes on, it shakes our buildings," he said. "You can't conduct business downtown if you're in an upstairs business office (because) the noise (from traffic) is deafening."
Leland believes something needs to be done so pedestrians can "stroll" the downtown area in a safe and calm manner, which will lead to more retail shopping and sales.
DDA Board Member Anna Taylor, who's a passionate supporter of building a new streetscape, explained that aesthetics are another big reason for the project.
"You've got sidewalks that are broken and popping," she said. "All of your brick pavers are popping and missing. The trees don't match. The trees are in containers that are too small for (them). The trees aren't growing. The edges to the sidewalks to your buildings are crumbling. This is your historic district and if you don't preserve it, then I don't know who is going to. The village isn't going to pony up any money for the sidewalks, so how long are you going to let the sidewalks pop?
"What are you going to do 10 years from now? What's it going to look like? How many more sidewalks are going to be popped? How many more bricks are going to be missing? How many trees are going to be dead?"
But some merchants fear the streetscape project will hurt their business as customers avoid the area while streets and sidewalks are torn up during construction.
Koula (Christi) Stoll, co-owner of Burdick Street Landscape, Equipment & Supply, explained how her store lost a total of $80,000 in sales when customers couldn't easily access it during the DDA's Backyards & Burgers events in May 2011 and 2012.
"Literally, the DDA brought us to our knees during Backyards & Burgers," she said.
Those events affected her business for a week at a time. She worried how much more revenue could be lost during streetscape construction, which could go on for months.
"What happens if we close for an entire season? I hate to say we're thinking about ourselves, but we're thinking about our selves here," Stoll said. "We're a cautionary tale of what could potentially happen to our downtown community."
Stoll noted she does see the need for changes to downtown Oxford's streetscape, but "on a much smaller scale." She cited things such as flowers, benches, lights and slowing traffic.
Coe knows first-hand how streetscape construction can negatively impact a merchant's bottom-line.
"Our sales were down to half (of what they were before during Lake Orion's construction). I know there were other businesses that were down at least that and maybe more," Coe said. "It was just really a very, very difficult thing to go through – more than you can possibly imagine.
"Fortunately, we have another business and we do business on-line, so it didn't put us out of business. If we didn't do those other things, it would have been very difficult to make it through it."
Rochester Hills resident Lois Golden, who once served as Lake Orion's DDA director and initially spearheaded that town's streetscape project, advised Oxford's DDA "to proceed with the project, but do the absolute minimum."
"Do the (flower) baskets. Retrofit your lighting (to save money on electricity) . . . But if you're going to tear up an entire street, you'd better be prepared to tell these business owners and property owners . . . sock away a year's worth of dollars to cover your expenses," she said. "Could you do that in your household? Probably not. We'd be lucky to do that for three months."
"So many businesses – long-term businesses, solid businesses – have gone under (in Lake Orion)," Golden continued. "It's human nature. People are not going to go through a war-zone to get to their knitting shop. (Customers) would say, 'We'll see you after the construction,' and the business owners would say, 'We're probably not going to be here.' So, do the minimum . . . Do whatever you can to lessen the impact on these businesses."
But Skilling said the merchants need to consider the big picture.
"I'm certainly empathetic to the people who are worried about lost business. I would be, too," he said. "But I think what's really important here is having a vision for what you want the downtown to become and finding ways to make it happen (so) it does not negatively impact the current businesses. I think that can be done. I know it can be done."
"When I saw the streetscape project, I thought, 'That's a vision,'' Skilling noted. "That's a vision that will definitely impact this community for years and years to come. That's a vision that's going to increase prosperity for this community. That's a vision that's going to increase the values of our homes in this community. It's going to make this community much more desirable than it currently is and it's a very desirable community."
Hunwick pointed out that "If (the Michigan Department of Transportation is) going to tear up M-24 anyway, aren't the businesses going to be impacted?"
MDOT is planning to do some road reconstruction along M-24 in 2016. The DDA is talking with MDOT about possibly coordinating the streetscape project with this road work.
"MDOT is coming through here," Taylor said. "That road (M-24) is going to be resurfaced, period. It's going to happen.
"Do you think they're going to come in here and (they're) not going to have any impact at all? Wrong. It is going to have an impact. Either we're prepared to do something when that happens or you're going to be . . . at the mercy of MDOT. Because trust me, they will do what they want to do unless you set the guidelines."
Golden urged the DDA board to let MDOT know exactly how it wishes for them to proceed regarding the construction. "You have some say over things," she said. "It's not what you do, it's how you do it."
Hunwick noted a statement made at the Jan. 7 village council meeting that the DDA wants to do this streetscape project in 2014 – prior to MDOT's work, which would mean tearing out all the improvements – is total "misinformation."
"We never talked about doing anything unless it was approved and orchestrated through MDOT," he said. "We've met with MDOT numerous times."
Taylor had stronger words for the critics.
"If that was portrayed to any business owner in this town, that is unethical, immoral and downright lying," she said.
Chris Bishop, who owns Oxford Hardware and used to serve on both village council and the DDA, urged the DDA to get council's approval on the streetscape project before proceeding with anything.
"Do you guys know what council's position is on the streetscape?," he asked. "Have you been given an official (position) or even asked for an official position from council on this streetscape?"
Bishop was one of the business owners who expressed opposition to the streetscape at the Jan. 7 council meeting.
"I say to you, if you haven't (got council approval), then you should shut it all down until you do get with council and figure out if that's where they want you to go," he said. "Because I, as a business owner, have told you I don't want you to go there. You haven't changed your direction, so I went to council and that's the way things work."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.