Some merchants on the 500 block of Main Street are not so sure they like the city’s idea of returning the block to two-way traffic, and changing the layout of a block they say is working just fine the way it is.
Last week, city engineer Tim Tucker sent downtown merchants a letter about proposed changes to the 500 block, which for the past 13 years has been a one-way street, with extruding brick “pockets” that allow outside dining and planter boxes. Parking is diagonal, and there are no meters, though there is a two-hour limit.
The block was an experiment in 1998 by a group of 35 volunteers, designed and engineered by Dick Duncan. The experiment, which cost slightly over $6,000, was intended to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment for Main Street. The hope was to extend the experiment to the remaining blocks, though that never happened.
At the time, 1998, stores on the 500 block were struggling. Now it is one of the most successful blocks on Main Street, and some merchants say that is largely the result of the pockets experiment.
But Tucker said that the City Council has made returning the 500 block to two-way traffic a high priority, and $200,000 in gas tax funds will be available in July to revamp the pockets, fix drainage problems, and return the street to two way traffic. That means reducing the size of the pockets, making less room for outdoor dining.
City Manager Phil Vince said Wednesday that there will be meetings with the property owners and merchants in September and October, and nothing will be decided before everyone has a chance to voice their views on how best to make the changes work.
“There surely must be more projects that need the city’s attention other than our block,” said Char West, owner of Char’s Flowers. “The expense is crazy in our eyes. They need to get us together and tell us what’s going on.”
One restaurant owner said she favored what she has heard from the city so far.
“The city’s been talking about doing this for years,” said Pat English, owner of Haute Stuff restaurant, who has taken advantage of the pockets to provide outdoor dining. “It sounds like they’re going to do a really good job. It sounds like a nice thing for the existing restaurants.”
But Luigi Daberdaku, owner of Luigi’s Deli, who also provides outdoor seating, said he believes the city should make all of Main Street into pockets.
“I wish they would make all of Main Street like this, and provide free two-hour parking,” he said. “They’re destroying the downtown, taking away our pockets.”
“I don’t see how a one-way street is a problem,” said Richard Stahlberg, of Stahlberg’s Photography one block over, and one of the volunteers of the pockets project. “I think (the project) was a great idea. If they have a nice design with outdoor seating, I’m all for it. I would like to see that happen all the way down Main Street.”
“Let’s use that $200,000 the City has earmarked for the 500 block of Main Street on something else that is needed,” said Anne Mobley of White Rabbit Boutique. “Why fix something that is not broken? Now is the time to do something different. It worked on the 500 block and it can work all the way down to Court Street. Our customers love it.”
“I don’t get it,” said Suzy Northrop of Main Street Quilts. “The city just makes a decision without asking anybody. Our block has full occupancy. It has a great feeling. It should be a model for the rest of the street. The city should just fix the drainage and leave us alone.”
“Improving Main Street is a high priority for this council,” said mayor Rob Schroder. “The consensus is, the council doesn’t like one way streets. Making the 500 block two way will improve traffic flow. The thought is to redesign the pockets and make them permanent, and change the parking to parallel. There will be changes, but there is no intent to eliminate the pockets.”
“I love outside dining,” Schroder added. “But (the merchants) have to remember that there is no entitlement to use city space. Using those sidewalks for outdoor dining is adding a lot of square feet to their business, at no cost to them. I’m glad they’re doing it, but the way it is now can create traffic problems.”
City engineer Tucker said that the one-way street has caused problems – he has seen cars go the wrong way and try to make a u-turn in the middle of the street, and said it can create a problem for emergency vehicles as well. There are also drainage problems as a result of drainpipes being too small.
“I’m not aware that the pockets are a problem,” said councilmember Mark Ross. “They’re not a priority for me. It’s something we probably need to take a look at, and maybe they need better engineering. But they’ve been very successful.”