Source: Sherman Publications

DDA presented with $4.66M streetscape plan

by CJ Carnacchio

February 22, 2012

$4.66 million.

That’s how much the total estimated cost is to revamp and improve a large portion of downtown Oxford’s streetscape to make it more attractive, more identifiable, more pedestrian-friendly and hopefully, calm the large volume of traffic on M-24.

Kevin Stephison, chairman of the Oxford Downtown Development Authority board and a member of the Oxford Village Council, urged his fellow officials to remain calm about that rather large estimate submitted to them as part of the “Complete Streets Enhancement Plan” presented at Monday night’s DDA meeting.

“I know everybody at this dais is sitting here having a little bit of sticker shock. I have to admit I did when I saw the numbers,” he said. “I’m going to ask the board members to refrain from panicking too much right now about the numbers until we decide what the final plan’s going to be and where we’re going.

“Yes, the numbers are there (and) they need to be considered, but we can either continue to live in the land of neutral and do nothing, and hope that this community will continue to thrive on its own. Or this board can be what this board is challenged to be and that is an economic development body.”

Of that $4.66 million figure, $994,280 would be ineligible for potential grant funding from the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT). The remaining $3.66 million would be eligible for MDOT grants, however, if obtained, the DDA would most likely be required to provide 30 percent (or $1.098 million) in matching funds.

A 70/30 split is generally what Oxford could expect if awarded grant money from MDOT, according to Sue Grissim, of the Northville-based Grissim Metz Andriese Associates, the planning firm that worked with Birchler Arroyo Associates, of Lathrup Village, to create the proposed streetscape plan

“Right now, in most communities, they’ll do that,” she said. Grissim noted MDOT’s Transportation Enhancement Grant is the “main one” Oxford would apply for. “There’s a lot of other grants out there, but what’s great about the Transportation Enhancement Grant is they’re all about making the pedestrian experience . . . better,” she said. “They fund, pretty much, the things behind the road curb.”

When the ineligible costs are added together with the 30 percent matching requirement, the DDA’s portion for the entire project would be $2.093 million. The DDA could attempt to fund its portion in a variety of ways ranging from using monies from its budget to securing grants from other sources.

However, it’s clear from the DDA’s proposed 2012-13 budget, that the entity does not have sufficient funds to cover an additional $2 million without grants or other revenue sources. According to village Manager Joe Young, the DDA’s preliminary budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 is $596,545. It appears the DDA could end the current fiscal year on June 30 with a projected fund balance of “around $46,000,” he said.

That’s assuming the DDA would want to proceed with the entire streetscape plan as presented. No such indication was given at the meeting and no action was taken.

“We’re in the process of looking at what can be done, how do we fund it, how far can we go,” Stephison explained. “We know roughly what the costs are going to be. We know how much we’d like to do, but at this point, the next obvious step in my mind (is) let’s take another little step and see what happens.”

The consultants broke the plan down into a list of 13 areas with itemized cost sheets for each, so the DDA board could pick and choose the things it would like to do, if the project’s not done all at once.

“These cost estimates are very accurate,” Grissim said. “They’ve got every little nook and cranny down there.”

What’s in the plan

The plan encompasses changing the appearance of M-24 (otherwise known as Washington St.) from the Polly Ann Trail bridge to the north all the way to Broadway St. to the south. It also includes the southern gateway to the village near the Oxford Marketplace shopping center and portions of Burdick St. to the east and west.

“We know it’s vital that you establish a look, so when people drive through, they’re thinking, ‘Hey, I want to go back there. Wow, that place is looking good,’” Grissim said.

Along Washington St., the plan envisions plenty of areas with vegetation, plantings and trees to serve as a buffer between pedestrians on the sidewalk and traffic in the road.

Grissim noted the trees would be large enough to provide shade for pedestrians and make them feel enclosed and safe as opposed to exposed to Washington St. traffic. However, they won’t be so large that they hide the buildings and businesses.

“The buildings are beautiful and we want to increase the view (of) them,” she said. “We don’t want to block them with the street trees. We want to enhance the look, so that you can showcase them.”

The plan calls for a number of torcheres (or torch lamps) to line Washington St. and alternate with the street lights. These tall, metal fixtures would serve a twofold purpose.

One, they would be used to house flowers and seasonal displays. A built-in sprinkler system would keep the flowers watered.

And secondly, at night, they would illuminate key architectural features on downtown buildings. Lighting is very important, according to Grissim. “You can add drama with creative lighting,” she said. “We really want to play up the architecture here.”

Proper lighting can also highlight other attributes like the eye-catching window displays of local businesses. “You want to have that lighting showcase those things,” she said.

The height of the tall torcheres is another way to enhance the local architecture.

“You guys have these fantastic buildings that we want to draw the eye up to and how you do that is you start getting some vertical elements up there, so you’re not just keeping your eye at ground level,” Grissim noted.

Other elements of the plan include lining the sidewalk with colorful clay pavers arranged to form a distinct pattern that basically becomes identified as Oxford’s pattern; adding seating and tables along the sidewalk; and using colored concrete in the roadway to form a large square at the intersection of Washington and Burdick streets.

Grissim said the purpose of the colored square in the road is to “really emphasize” that drivers should “slow down” and “make it more safe for pedestrians to cross.”

“This is the heart (of town),” she said.

The proposed plan also calls for enhancing the north, south, east and west gateways to the downtown area. “It’s that doorway into the community, so they need to reflect what’s coming down the road,” Grissim said.

Right now, the plan calls for each gateway element to incorporate and duplicate the spire located atop downtown’s Northeast Oakland Historical Museum.

Using the spire as Oxford’ gateway symbol “is not set in stone,” Grissim said. “This is something we’re recommending right now.”

At the south (near Minnetonka St.), east (Mill St.) and west (Oxford Village offices) gateways, the consultants are proposing large architectural features, each resembling a lantern with the spire atop it. It’s meant to symbolize the fact that Oxford, England is the village’s sister city and create that “Old World effect,” according to Grissim.

Grissim indicated the lanterns would consist of ornamental iron work and a base made of “precast aggregate stone,” which is a nod to Oxford’s history as the Gravel Capital of the World. They would be illuminated at night.

At the southern gateway, Grissim indicated the plan calls for colored concrete going all the way across M-24, so drivers will feel like they’re crossing a “threshold,” plus landscaping on each side of the road. “It’s important when you have a gateway that you feel like you’re going through it,” she said.

The downtown’s northern gateway, the Polly Ann Trail bridge, would receive a make-over that incorporates the spire along with other elements such as ironwork to match the lanterns, creeping vines along the sides and repainting the concrete walls to soften them.

Maintenance costs

According to Grissim, if everything in the proposed plan was implemented, the estimated cost for maintenance could be $30,000 to $40,000 per year.

“As a ball park (figure), I would say that,” she said. “Part of this . . . is understanding what the maintenance will be . . . No point in doing it and then later (you) can’t afford to take care of it right. It’s a big investment.”

Loss of some on-street parking

Right now, there are 44 on-street parking spaces along Washington St. between East and Stanton streets.

“The new plan proposes (to remove) those parking stalls that are near Burdick (and) are under-utilized,” Grissim said. “(Based on) previous studies, they’re just not used enough.”

Under the proposed plan, some existing on-street spaces would be eliminated and new ones created further away from Burdick St., so that in the end, there would a total of 32 on-street spaces downtown, which is a net loss of 12 spaces.

“We’re trying to make the parking down here more efficient,” Grissim said.

Rod Arroyo, of Birchler Arroyo Associates, indicated some on-street parking was eliminated to make more room for pedestrians.

“We’re trying to widen the sidewalks to the point where they actually have a functionality,” he said. “Where you can have the planting areas, you can have benches, you can have people walking and feeling comfortable and protected from the moving traffic. Yes, there is some loss of on-street parking, but there are also advantages to providing those parking spaces in other locations

“We’re trying to strike a balance here. The overriding goal that we heard . . . is you want to make the streets more comfortable for the pedestrians. You’re not going to make streets comfortable for pedestrians when you have a 4-foot wide walkway in a location where you’re trying to have (a) downtown shopping experience.”

Ron Rolando, who owns Great Lakes Mercantile (8 S. Washington St.), was very much opposed to the idea of eliminating so much on-street parking, especially the five spaces in front of his store in the southeast quadrant.

“I’ve got over a decade worth of papers (regarding meetings and plans concerning parking) and (in) not one place did it say (to) remove any parking on our main street,” he said. “As a matter of fact, it says add as much as you can. I’ve got documents (upon) documents that say that from planners.”

Rolando said he and other business owners “depend on that parking right there.”

“This discourages me that you’re going to take my parking all away in front of the store,” he said. “I’ve never heard one time, in that 20 years (of owning a business), anyone say, ‘I’m scared to park here.’”

Rolando did his own parking study that shows those spaces are used “quite a bit.”

Stephison said he understands losing these spaces “may impact some businesses.”

“We get that, but we also are looking, again, at the big picture,” he said. “I get it. You’re frustrated. I appreciate that. But we also have to look at the big picture for the whole downtown as well and all this gets taken into account as we go forward . . . This is like (King) Solomon with the baby – there is no easy answer to this.

“In reality, no matter what plan we approve, we’re going to tick somebody off. I’ll apologize in advance if we do that, but that’s part of the big picture, the big process that has to be done.”

Robb Leland, owner of Art Capsule Gallery & Frame (5 S. Washington St.), favored eliminating the on-street spaces based on personal experience. He believes they’re a safety hazard as folks are in danger of being hit as they exit and enter their cars.

He told the DDA board he never uses the on-street parking and he advises his customers not to use those spaces, either.

“The loss of parking in front of our business doesn’t mean much to us,” he said. “We always recommend people park in the rear. Thankfully, there’s a lot of parking in the rear.”

Criticism

“I think conceptually, we’re going down the wrong road,” said Chuck Schneider, who owns numerous commercial properties within the DDA district.

Schneider believes the proposed streetscape plan will not help mitigate the effects of M-24 truck traffic, which was identified as a major issue, nor will it make the pedestrian environment appealing and safe.

“We can have all the landscaping, all the torcheres, all the flowers (we want), but it isn’t going to change the underlying fact that we got a lot of trucks and a lot of noise,” Schneider said. “Trying to make the front of these stores a safe-haven and a place where people want to walk and converse is a very tall order.”

Schneider indicated he would have been “more excited and more impressed” if the consultants would have come up with a plan to improve areas behind the buildings.

“This is where the majority of the parking (is),” he said. “You’ve got 44 spaces out in front. You’ve got hundreds of spaces in the rear. Let’s try and make the backs of these buildings more attractive and (add) places where people could sit and dine and so forth.”

Schneider commented on the guy depicted in one of the plan’s images as sitting alongside M-24 and reading a newspaper

“It ain’t going to work real good at all because that truck’s going to blow you right out of the chair. It just is the reality,” he said.

“I’d love for (the trucks) to disappear, but they aren’t. It isn’t going to happen. So, I think that we’re unrealistic in our perception that we’re going to put (in) a lot of landscaping and a lot of pretty stuff and it’s going to change who we are. It isn’t going to change who we are.”

Arroyo noted MDOT will not provide any grant funding for any improvements behind the downtown buildings.

Arroyo said they realize “the trucks aren’t going away.” However, the streetscape design can “have an impact on how people perceive the noise” and on how motorists behave.

“By having the physical planters continuous along the roadway and creating those vertical elements, you are going to calm traffic,” he said. “If you’re driving into a downtown area, you naturally slow down because you know things are closed in, there’s more activity, there might be pedestrians, (you) have to be careful. You don’t need a speed limit sign to do it, you just naturally slow down.

“That doesn’t mean you’re going to have silence outside . . . It’s still going to be loud. It’s still going to be difficult to talk.”

However, creating spaces where pedestrians feel comfortable makes it more desirable for them to sit along the streetscape during those times when M-24 is quieter such as on weekends, according to Arroyo.

“Keep in mind these are not necessarily improvements that are going to be used 24 hours a day,” he said.