Wednesday, February 19, 2014

If you could redesign Chariton's square?

So what would you do if given an opportunity to redesign the public spaces in downtown Chariton for the 21st century? 

Finally, after two previous tries were cancelled because of winter storms, stakeholders in the Main Street District (the square plus a block in all directions) --- business owners and managers, property owners and others --- had an opportunity to share their ideas during a meeting last evening at the Chariton Public Library.

The "Streetscape" project is a joint undertaking of Chariton Area Chamber Main Street and the City of Chariton. Genus Landscape Architects, headquartered in Des Moines' East Village, is handling the design work and the firm's founding principal Brett Douglas (left above) and associate Dylan Jones (right) are the professionals we've been working with since late last year.

Brett and Dylan first visited Chariton a couple of years ago when the city was participating in Iowa's Living Roadways Community Visioning Program.


A Streetscape is a comprehensive design that covers all aspects of the public space in a designated area --- under-the-street infrastructure (water, sanitary and storm sewer lines), street surfaces, sidewalks, traffic patterns, lighting, signage and amenities such as landscaping, benches, bike racks --- even planters and refuse containers.

In Chariton's case, the goal is to create a master plan that can be implemented over many years as funding becomes available. Chariton's Streetscape is not tied directly to other downtown improvement projects, but is intended to be complementary. Other projects underway or ready to launch right now include Hotel Charitone rehabilitation (due to be completed in a month or two), an upper-level housing initiative involving three buildings on the square and the facade improvement project that during the next year or two will result in facelifts for many commercial structures.

The plan also is intended to provide cost-effective guidance when necessary improvements are made. For example, when sidewalks are replaced it makes sense to deal with street lighting at the same time. A shift in traffic pattern would be made logically when streets are replaced. Street replacement logically calls for updating infrastructure underneath them. And so forth.

The city's consulting engineers have worked closely with Genus to assess the condition of utilities and other infrastructure.


One thing that became clear during early phases of planning was the fact much downtown infrastructure is nearing the end of its useful life. Our sidewalks are not in the best of shape in many areas because they were installed when the buildings they front were constructed --- in some cases a century or more ago. Only the new sidewalks installed recently around the Charitone comply with Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

Some of the under-street infrastructure also is more than a century old and street lights are at least 60 years old.

There are oddities, too. The never has had a comprehensive storm sewer system under the square, for example. Lines run from the square down the east and west alleys --- and that's it. So major street surface changes anywhere in the district have to be planned with that as a consideration.


Much of Tuesday night's discussion focused on traffic pattern, since other planning phases will be dependent on how vehicles move around the square. The current unique system was installed during 1963. It was brand new when the photo below was taken.

Curbing now is banged up and badly worn, however, and in some cases hazardous to pedestrians; and the original plan to govern traffic with pavement markings didn't work out. Each corner of the square now features a nest of signs telling motorists where to go. Although we're used to the system, it often confuses visitors.

But there are advantages, too --- Chariton has more on-square parking places that most other cities its size, in some cases more than a hundred more. Plus, the sequestered parking area around the courthouse comes in handy on the 4th of July and during some other public events.

All redesign plans for the square will reduce the number of parking places, some strategies more so than others.

Brett and Dylan presented two ideas for redesign Tuesday evening. The less dramatic of the two would retain the sequestered parking area but alter entry and exit points, make it more pedestrian friendly and green it up. The more dramatic plan would eliminate sequestered parking, restore two-way traffic all around the square and utilize angle parking --- toward storefronts and toward the courthouse --- exclusively, as well as enlarge the courthouse lawn substantially. The latter option cuts into parking place numbers less than one might expect in large part because store-front parking now is parallel.

The outcome of an informal vote as the meeting wound down was interesting. Sprucing up the current sequestered parking system received the fewest votes by a substantial margin. Those who favored a return to two-way traffic and angle parking had a one-vote edge. A similar number, however, favored more design work, perhaps a plan that would include some sequestered parking and smaller increase in center-square greenspace.

There will be more public meetings as Streetscape work continues. The project steering committee, and I'm a member of it, also will be meeting. And it's really important that stakeholders --- that's anyone who wants to stake a claim --- share their views. There are city officials to talk to, as well as Chamber Main Street staff and board members. So feel free.

I'm including the photo here because of the lesson uincorporated into it. That's (from left) Dylan, Brett and Kris Patrick, Chariton's Main Street coordinator. I've spent a working lifetime arranging people into photographable groups off and on. One thing you discover is that younger people are wonderful to work with. When you deal with adults, however, it's just like trying to herd cats.

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