Somebody was counting noses Monday when 83 citizens (count ‘em) assembled in front of the newly expanded and renovated Mary Riley Styles Public Library to partake in a walking tour hosted by City Hall of the plans to convert Park Avenue between the library (at N. Virginia Ave.) and three blocks away to N. Washington St. at the State Theatre into a “Great Street.”
There are so many new and lovely amenities tied to this project that it took over an hour to cover the three blocks, which will enjoy the benefits of a $10 million federal grant that will pay for it all. Actual construction of the many changes won’t be completed until 2030, but given how time flies in the Little City, it may not seem that long in fact.
After all, that’s only as long as the project has been in the minds of City planners and leaders, who began in 2014 with a new chapter in the City’s Comprehensive Plan devoted to “mobility for all modes” and a visionary downtown small area plan.
With the formal adoption of the Comprehensive Plan chapter in 2015 came the first report on the Park Avenue Great Street project, and with other approvals at City Hall, including of new streetscape standards, the Park Avenue Great Street plan was presented to the City Council this year, and the walking tour included participation by the entire Council.
In the federal vision for “Great Streets,” used in conjunction with its grant application and awarding process, the notion is described as “a lively, attractive destination that accommodates all modes of transportation while promoting social interaction, civic activity and commerce.”
Indeed, Park Avenue in those three blocks alone is home to many of the key features of what a “Great Street” would embody. There is the connection to City Hall and the library, to the historic Cherry Hill Park and vibrant locally-based businesses like the popular and stylish Northside Social eatery and music related businesses in the shadow of the State Theater, which is now a popular regional draw for live music.
It is actually pretty astonishing how much is loaded into the three “Great Street” blocks, while still seeming generally low key each taken by itself.
But all of this will be treated to components that include undergrounding of utility poles, more trees, slowing of the speed limit to 20 mph, raised brick intersections with shortened crosswalks, realignment of the Maple Avenue intersection, gateway features at each end of the project, and an improved public entry into Cherry Hill Park.
There will be 39 new canopy (shade giving) trees, safer pedestrian crossings, upgraded bike markings in the street, quality materials meeting the best streetscape standards, brick paver sidewalks, pedestrian scale lights, benches and bike racks, beautification features to create an appealing destination for shoppers, diners and concert-goers, outdoor seating, wider sidewalks and maintained on-street parking.
In addition to Park Avenue from N. Virginia to N. Washington (Route 29), the plan encompasses the cross streets in its center of Little Falls and Maple Avenue and the park-like area in front of City Hall and N. Washington by the State Theatre.
The west end of the project at N. Virginia will serve as a gateway to the plan, with a raised intersection and “bulbouts” of sidewalk areas extended into the intersection to shorten the pedestrian crosswalks. There will be the improved entrance to Cherry Hill Park, new tree plantings in front of the park entrance, low plantings at all corners, more street furnishings, ornamental bollards with integrated art and tile work, and directional brick paving patterns at crosswalks.
At Monday’s well-attended walking tour, the City’s Al Astorga did most of the talking, while Mayor David Tarter opened with brief remarks followed by the City Planning Department czar Paul Stoddard. The public concerns expressed were in mainly two areas: first, the slippery when wet issues of brick sidewalks, and second, the impact of it all on public parking.
The latter concern came more into play when it was suggested that the City’s award-winning Saturday morning farmers market might need to be moved out of the City Hall parking lot onto the Park Avenue property. Although no final decision on that will need to come for multiple years, it aroused a lot of concern among the citizens present due to parking and other matters.
The City’s Parks and Rec chief Danny Schlitt spoke up amid that debate and said whatever final decisions are made, they will be with making the overall use of the farmers market and the “Great Street” better and not worse.