Denison city officials shared a vision on Thursday with downtown business owners and residents of what a restored downtown Denison, complete with street improvements and new amenities, could look like. The discussion was an update on plans drafted in November by consulting firm Toole Design Group for public improvements to the city’s core.
Last year, Toole held public meetings with residents to gather input on improvements and project ideas before making recommendations in a series of two public meetings. On Thursday, firm representatives were not present and discussion was led by City Manager Jud Rex.
“If you are here tonight you care about downtown just like we all do, and I think it speaks volumes of our community here in Denison,” Rex said, opening the meeting. “Really what we are here to do is update you on Toole Design Group’s plans and what we are calling Designing Downtown Denison.”
In the initial phase of planning, Toole consultants proposed a series of upgrades and improvements to Main Street, its cross streets and nearby secondary streets. Improvements include a full overhaul of the roadway complete with bike lanes and outdoor space for businesses, improvements to downtown parking and a new, Top of the Town Park, located in the 700 block of Main Street.
On Thursday, Rex focused his attention on some of the topics that were major points of discussion during the first phase of planning. The first phase of development will likely focus on areas between the railroad tracks on East Main and Rusk, he said.
In order to finance these improvements, the city created a Tax Increment Reinvestment Zone for downtown and neighboring connector streets in late 2016 and early 2017. The zone will be used by the city to set aside a portion of future property tax revenues based on the increases in property values compared to the baseline set last year.
Rex said the city anticipates having enough money built up in the TIRZ fund by 2019 and 2020 to pursue a $7.5 million bond for the first phase of improvements. With the improvements to the streetscape, Rex said it is expected to cost about $2.5 million for each city block.
“It is nice to have a picture and say, ‘This is what we want downtown to look at,’” Rex said. “It is another thing to take the steps needed to make financing for that vision possible. Denison has done just that.”
During preliminary planning, officials with Toole proposed a redesign of Main Street that would add bike lanes on both sides of the street with a mixture of back-in, slot parking and parallel parking. However, upon assessment, city officials expressed concern that this could negatively impact downtown parking and have since removed plans for the dedicated bike lanes. Instead, Rex proposed that Crawford be used as a primary bike route into downtown.
Lucky Thompson, who rides a skateboard and has children who bike, asked if the alleyways could be used as bike routes. Under the Toole plans, the alleys are expected to be overhauled with space for both motorists and pedestrians.
The plans for parking drew some concern and criticism from downtown businesses who were worried that the changes in parking would detract from their business and scare away some customers. Among those who were worried about this plan was Marcie Sullivan, owner of the Print House Boutique. Sullivan said many of her customers are older women, who might not be accustomed to backing into a parking space.
“They say they are scared to death of backing in,” she said.
Sullivan added that she fears this might have enough of an impact on some businesses that it would cause them to close.
Avalon Plauche, who operates the Downtown Exchange in the 400 block of Main, expressed similar concerns. With the improvements to the streetscape, Plauche said she worries that it might have a negative impact on businesses and customer traffic, especially if construction is prolonged. After construction is completed, Plauche worries, the improvements may drive property values so high that they will force other businesses to close.
In addition to the changes to street parking, Rex said the city is considering improvements to a number of parking lots along Chestnut Street. By redesigning and centralizing slots in these lots, Rex said the city could increase the number of parking spots in downtown. He added that this could be done through a private-public partnership for lots not owned by the city.
In addition to the streetscape, Rex took the opportunity to address local demand for a dog park. After consulting with Toole, Rex said the city is considering adding the amenity to Forest Park.
“In looking for a location, our best opportunity is at Forest Park,” he said. “This is likely to be an idea that continues to evolve, but right now this is the most logical idea.”
Following the feedback from Thursday’s meeting, Rex said the next step would be to update the plans before taking them before the TIRZ board and city council.