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Pros pitch services to make downtown more walkable



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May 11, 2011 - For years, folks have been talking and talking about the need to make downtown Oxford more pedestrian-friendly and calm the traffic flowing along Washington St. (M-24).

Well, the talk continued last week, but it appears this time the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) is moving toward hiring a group of professionals to actually make it happen.

Last week, two groups pitched their services, which ranged from design and planning to grant writing, to the DDA's Economic Restructuring Committee.

"We have this enormous road with this enormous volume of traffic that just happens to have a village on either side. That's the wrong way to look at it," said landscape architect Jim Eppink, president of the Clarkston-based J Eppink Partners, Inc. "The right way to look at it, we think, is we've got a terrific village that just happens to have a road that goes through the middle of it."

Eppink was part of the first group, which included his firm along with the Detroit-based Archive Design Studio and the Ann Arbor-based Neighborhood Funding Resources, which offers comprehensive grant writing services.

The first group quoted a fee of $34,450 for its services, which does not include project expenses and additional consultants, both of which require client approval.

"You can landscape anything, you can dress it up, but it doesn't make a place and that's what we're all about. We're about making a place," said Richard Houdek, a partner with the Northville-based Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, which does landscape architecture and civil engineering.

Houdek was part of the second group, which included his firm and the Lathrup Village-based Birchler Arroyo Associates, which does community planning and transportation consulting.

The second group's fee for its services was $52,500.

Both groups expressed similar ideas for downtown Oxford such as turning Washington St. into a boulevard by constructing a center median.

This would have the effect of calming traffic by letting drivers know they've entered a village area and should watch for pedestrians. The center median also gives pedestrians a safe haven to wait as they cross between the east and west sides of the busy state highway.

Eppink suggested the village could eliminate four feet of sidewalk from each side to construct an eight-foot wide median. "Your sidewalks are actually fairly wide," he said.

Other suggestions for the downtown included creating more public spaces and gathering places such pocket parks (mini-parks); using architectural elements or landscaping to create barriers between pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles on the street; and creating more outdoor cafes.

Mark Nickita, a partner in Archive DS, called outdoor cafes a "great opportunity to enliven and create a sidewalk that's viable and active."

Both groups talked about making the rear entrances of downtown buildings just as attractive as the fronts, so as to encourage more pedestrian traffic behind them and accommodate more outdoor cafes.

There was talk about revitalizing and utilizing existing alleyways.

"We see these back areas and these alleys as opportunities," Nickita said. "We don't look at them necessarily as negatives. We look at them as positives."

"If designed properly and guided properly, those alleys can become pedestrian-oriented places," he noted.

It's also critical for the downtown to have clearly defined gateways at its north and south ends, according to both groups.

"These gateways are so important (for) setting the tone for coming into the village," said Rod Arroyo, vice president of Birchler Arroyo Associates.

Any changes to the downtown are going to require lots of public input, according to Arroyo. That's why if the DDA hires his group, they would conduct an on-line survey and host an open house workshop.

"That type of input is invaluable to a successful process," he said.

To understand the difficulties local people are having navigating the downtown area, "you have to live there and breathe it and be there all the time," according to Arroyo.

"That's something a consultant can't do for you," he said. "We can't just come in and say this is the way you should do it and then walk away. We have to listen to you. We have to work as a team to come up with these solutions."

Now is an opportune time for the village to seek plan approval and funding for pedestrian-friendly projects from both the state and federal governments, according to both groups.

"It's a really great time to work with MDOT," Eppink said. "These people want to keep their jobs and they keep their jobs by having people and plans in front of them."

"You've already got a traffic light (at Broadway and M-24) and that was one huge obstacle that most people didn't think we would accomplish three or four years ago. It shows that MDOT's willing to work."

Arroyo noted that in 1953, when the federal Interstate Highway Act was passed, "the focus was almost 100 percent on roadways."

"Finally, the federal government has come back around and said, 'Wait a minute, we need to be spending some money on complete streets . . . and bike paths and pedestrian facilities," he said. "So, there now is actually money available to do hopefully what you want to do."

Given the DDA and village's limited financial resources, any pedestrian or traffic-related improvements made to the downtown would have to be funded via grants from public and private sources.

"I don't put a grant in unless I feel they have a really good chance of getting it," said Jim Moran, director of Neighborhood Funding Resources. "If it is going to be a long-shot, I'm going to let you know."

Moran indicated his firm obtains 60 percent of the grants it goes after. In the last two years, his firm's brought in about $30 million for its clients.

Nationally, only about 4 percent of all grant applications are awarded funding, he noted.

Moran explained there are many grants available related to energy conservation, environmental protection and sustainability that could be obtained and used to fund downtown projects.

For instance, Oxford Village is part of the Stony Creek and Paint Creek subwatersheds.

"They're both areas of concern. They both qualify for funding," Moran said.

Moran is anxious to put Oxford's story on paper. "I'm a writer at heart and I want to tell your story," he said. "I want to make that grant reader either laugh or cry, I do not care which one. I want to get him emotionally involved in my grant, so when it comes time to score all these things, he remembers mine more than all these other dry things. Sometimes I go for the laughter. Sometimes I go for the tears. And sometimes I go for both."

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