Saturday, August 14, 2010
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City's open house brings up decades-old problems with downtown parking

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[August 14, 2010]  Mayor Keith Snyder and Wanda Lee Rohlfs, director of Main Street Lincoln, worked together to host an open house and public hearing Tuesday evening on grant applications for streetscape improvements in the downtown area.

InsuranceThe grants include one for $675,000 through the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and another from the Illinois Department of Transportation in the amount of $1,875,000.

Lisa Kramer of Prairie Engineers of Illinois was on hand to talk to visitors at the open house and conduct the public hearing that took place immediately following.

The open house and public hearing were a part of the "community involvement" portion of the grant application. Kramer collected names at both events, as well as input from community leaders and area business owners as to what they would like to see the money used for if the grants are awarded to the city of Lincoln.

During the public hearing portion, business owners took the podium and expressed their support of the grant applications.

Also, every person who spoke expressed one common concern for the future of the downtown area, and that was the need for more parking.

This topic also spilled over into the workshop session of the city council as options were discussed on how to improve what exists and where to find more parking in the downtown area.

At the public hearing, Roger Matson of Action Rental and Sales responded first to a question from the mayor regarding the downtown parking.

Matson said that a lack of parking was a hindrance to several of the businesses on and around the square. He noted in particular that on the Broadway side of his business, Absolute Harmony, which is located just to the west of him, does not have sufficient parking for its business.

He noted that especially for the older clientele, there is no place close by where a person can access a walkway that is compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Matson said he allows Absolute Harmony customers to park in his loading zone area so that they can gain access to the sidewalk, using the alley between the two buildings.

Another business owner, Barb Reinwald of the Treasure Chest, said that one of the biggest problems she has in her part of town is that other businesses allow their employees to park in the spaces near her building. She said it's a problem that her customers have told her straight-out deters them from coming to her store.

As the discussions continued, it became apparent that this same problem was occurring all over the downtown area, plus there is an issue with county employees using the public spaces around the square when they have their own designated parking in the municipal lot behind the Arcade Building.

At the moment there doesn't seem to be any easy solution to these problems. As business owners spoke on the subject, they first wanted greater consideration from other business owners. They felt that employees should not be allowed to take up parking spaces in front of stores and thought that the employees as well as the business owners should understand that doing this hindered shoppers.

They also felt that the county employees should be more considerate and use designated parking spaces or one of the municipal lots.

And, if it could be found, they want more spaces.

If the city would win the grant awards, the idea of more spaces might be feasible.

One of the requirements of the grants the city is applying for is to identify and remedy blighted portions of the downtown area.

Remedies for such blighted areas could be refurbishing a property and making it into a useful retail area, or it could mean demolition. Demolition would take place only if the blighted property were deemed irreclaimable.

However, if a building did have to be demolished, that could be an opportunity to replace it with a public parking area.

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When Rohlfs spoke, she also added that she was not opposed to "going up." She said that if the city was going to continue to grow the downtown business area, and if Main Street was going to encourage building owners downtown to refurbish their second-floor areas into living space, the demand for parking would only increase.

She said that a two-level parking building was not unthinkable as long as it was designed to be cohesive with the rest of the cityscape.

Early in the discussion Snyder had referred to the parking problem as a question of the chicken or the egg: Which comes first -- more business creating a demand for more parking, or more parking offering an opportunity for more business?

David Lanterman of Beans and Such addressed his comments to that subject, saying that he felt there was no question that the downtown area cannot enjoy increases in business if there is no parking for the customers.

He added that if the city were to add parking, there would probably at first be the perception that it wasn't needed, as it would take a while for people to get accustomed to new space available, and it would also take some time for potential shoppers who had left, disappointed by the parking situation, to return.

In regard to an actual streetscape design, Kramer said that for the grant applications, she is going to include some generic design ideas to illustrate how the money would be used if awarded.

The actual end design will not be created until the city knows whether or not they are going to receive the grant funding.

During the open house, Kramer showed visitors some examples of streetscapes she had visited that were comparable to Lincoln, and John Lebegue, the city's zoning and safety officer, offered a desktop slide show of the streetscape of LaGrange, where the town underwent a major overhaul of its downtown area, including new facades on many of the buildings.

Rohlfs said that new facades are something that will be considered in the downtown area, but that the designs will need to adhere to the historic qualities that already exist.

She added that she doesn't know for sure yet how the money for such improvements will be distributed. She believes, though, that the best thing to do would be to offer business owners attractive loans for the improvements.

She said it is important that the business owners have some kind of sense of ownership in these projects. She also said that for the city to front the money and tell the owners what to do with their own buildings would be detrimental to the project as a whole.

Kramer expects to have the grant applications submitted by the first of the month, and she said that learning the final outcome of the applications could take as little as three months or as long as a year.


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