What would make downtown better?

What would make downtown better?

October 2nd, 2013 by Shelly Bradbury in Local Regional News

Does downtown need more parking spaces? Do one-way streets help or hurt? What's the solution for the city's empty office spaces and old buildings?

Urban planners, designers, architects and financial experts hope to answer those questions and others at a three-day conference that will start with public input and end with new long-term strategies for the part of downtown called the "city center." The event, sponsored by River City Co. and the Benwood and Lyndhurst foundations, will take a hard look at the area between Fourth and 12th streets, from Highway 27 to Georgia Avenue.

The City Center Charrette kicks off with a free, open-to-the public brainstorming session Monday, Oct. 7.

"Some of our best ideas have come from citizens who live it every day," said Kim White, president and CEO at River City. "I want the community to come in fresh to give their input on how things work and what could be better. That's what make these so rich and important. It's a way to have voice in the way your city grows."

After the public brainstorming session Oct. 7, the mix of local and outside experts will spend two days delving into the problems and solutions for City Center before presenting the final plans at a second public session Oct. 9.

The goal is to end up with feasible, affordable, practical plans for the area, said Macon Toledano, associate director at the Lyndhurst Foundation.

"River City is striving to go beyond a purely planning exercise and delve into a deeper understanding of the market, economic drivers and particular opportunities that are there for public and private participation," he said.

There are some obvious challenges the charrette will need to address, said David DeVaney, president of NAI Charter Real Estate Corp. One of those is the 18 percent vacancy rate in downtown offices. Experts say a healthy market sits between 7 and 10 percent.

"I'd like to see an emphasis placed on taking these older buildings from kind of C-class, older office buildings to being converted to residential or hospitality," he said. "We need to improve the housing downtown. It needs to be more affordable and reasonable, either from a condominium or rent structure."

The group will also look at parking and transportation downtown, White said.

The event is similar to the Urban Design Challenge held last year that generated ideas ranging from moving the Pilgrim's Pride chicken plant from the Southside, to building a soccer field on top of a parking garage on Vine Street - except this event will also consider the financial feasibility of each plan, staying more grounded in the reality of markets and budgets, White said.

The charrette will also consider civic space, green space and how to create the right mix of retail, restaurants, housing and commercial, Toledano said.

"It's not the idea of the downtown alone, but the notion of creating a vital and sustainable center of life that has civic value to the whole community," he said. "And that's why it is ideal to have a community-based process."