February 13, 2013 - There has been much written in the Oxford Leader recently regarding the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and a possible new streetscape design. First; my experience with DDA's and streetscape programs.
I owned three commercial buildings located in a DDA District for over 20/yrs. My buildings were as close, or closer, to a major street as the buildings in Oxford's DDA District. I also had both beginning and advanced training in planning and zoning from the Michigan Society of Planning Officials and served as a planning commission member for 6 years.
I was also involved at the formation of a DDA. A DDA is a quasi-governmental group made up of people appointed by elected representatives such as the Oxford Village Council. Their interest should be to improve the entire DDA District. However, it is human nature to represent the properties they own. If too many people are appointed from one area, that seems to be the area that gets money or so called improvements.
The money for these projects comes from what is called a Tax Increment Financing Fund (TIFF). A TIFF is a system of diverting tax money that could be in other government accounts including the Oxford Village and Oxford Township accounts, if there were no TIFF. It comes from part of the taxes paid in the Tax Increment Funding District. To explain the formula would take more space than any Letter to the Editor should take. This is tax money not money being spent by the business owners to improve the area around their business. I have seen money spent on several DDA projects that never would have been approved if the DDA board members had to spend it out of their own pockets.
Recognizing that they are not planners many times the DDA board members hire professional planners to design streetscapes or other projects. If these projects are implemented, and the firm that designed the project gets hired to oversee its implementation, that firm usually gets paid a percentage of the total cost of the project on top of being paid for the initial design work. Simply put, the more expensive the project they sell to the DDA, the more money the firm makes regardless of how successful the project is or was.
A good improvement project does not have to cost millions of dollars. I have never seen or heard of a firm telling a DDA: Before you give us your money look the basics.
1. What is the purpose of the project?
To provide an incentive for people to walk the business district hoping they will see something they want to buy. If that were the reason for the project, why not work with the building owners and businesses to have nice window displays. Currently some do nice window displays but others are bland or have nothing. Give people reasons to enjoy walking the DDA District.
A good example is the Oxford School buildings. While school buildings are a poor use of the commercial strip at least make use of them. Why not have art work created by children from different schools displayed in the school buildings windows. The children will want their parents and grandparents to see their work on display. This could result in more people walking the downtown district. This would cost the DDA nothing.
If a building is empty, instead of having nothing or a huge for rent sign, why not work with the building owners to invite local artists to display their art in the windows? This would cost the DDA nothing.
2. Make it comfortable for people to walk.
Ask yourself are you more comfortable walking with someone on a sidewalk that is 2 foot wide or 5 foot wide. Is it easier to pass people coming the other way on a wide or narrow sidewalk? Most streetscape programs sell the idea of putting something such a berm or wall between the road and sidewalk where people walk. This not only narrows the walk way, so people don't want to walk there, but makes it harder for people to get out of their vehicles and onto the sidewalk, thus causing them to not want to park on the street and walk to a local business.
3. Eliminate obstacles:
Many streetscape programs, including the proposed one, have used brick paving. This is a known, high expense, maintenance problem. Bricks should be considered a hazard because they pop and heave leaving uneven pavement creating possible future lawsuits. I know of three cities where brick programs needed repair less than a year after the bricks were installed. If the plan calls for colored pavement use dyed concrete.
4. Signage and trees:
Currently there are parking and traffic directional signs of varying sizes and shapes that are very basic and distracting. Use an ascetically designed sign pole to hold the signs and give uniformity.
Trees are used in many cities as part of a streetscape project. But trees do little to block traffic sounds when the leaves are down. Have you ever seen a streetscape design drawing showing trees with no leaves? Planners don't tend to show trees with no leaves because they know it's not the look the DDA wants. When the leaves are present they tend to block business signage leading to possible traffic hazards. Trees and plants also require ongoing maintenance such as weeding, watering and pruning. When trees are used discretion should be used in their placement.
Regarding comments about the traffic on Lapeer Rd: This is and will remain a serious problem as long as Oxford Township continues to push for over development.
The more houses we have the more people that will be driving on our roads. There is no room to widen Lapeer Rd. within the village.
Adding more traffic lights will only increase the sound of vehicles hitting the brakes and starting up.
Short of making a loop around the Village there is little anyone can do. A loop around the Village worked for Birmingham, but is expensive and who is going to pay for it? That type of expense does not fall within the guidelines of the things a DDA can use TIFF money for.
I attended the preview of the proposed streetscape project and asked some basic questions but never got an acceptable answer from any of the firm's planners. Instead I heard "Good question …next".
Not having attended the January DDA meeting, my opinions are based on what I have read in the Oxford Leader and the Letters to the Editor. It seems as though some people were upset with the DDA Board.
Please remember that the board members are volunteers and give of their time.
They don't have to spend their time trying to make the village a better place. Most will welcome input if made in a reasonable way.