City officials updated commissioners on a downtown improvement project and also discussed parking issues in the district at Tuesday’s meeting.
Jason Hilgers, assistant city manager, said the meeting served as an opportunity for commissioners to see the design team’s progress since last fall. Patrick Schaub, of Bowman, Bowman Novick, the architectural firm involved in the project, said BBN is “well into the construction document phase.” Schaub said the firm expects to be done with the documents in November and plans to receive bids for the project in January. The anticipated construction date is March.
The project will focus on improvements along Poyntz Avenue, 3rd Street and 4th Street. The city will use $1 million from the downtown toward its portion and bond the remaining $1.7 million. Downtown business owners will pay $146,700 of the total $2.85 million cost.
Schaub said the project will replace curbs and gutters throughout the district as they’ve deteriorated over the years. The project will also include improvements to intersections called “bulb-outs.” They are traffic-calming measures that extend the sidewalk at an intersection. Schaub said they shorten the distance pedestrians must walk to cross streets and also make it more obvious to motorists that they are approaching a crosswalk.
Trees and tree wells will also be replaced, along with benches, light poles and trash receptacles.
Mayor Loren Pepperd questioned whether business owners would be happy with the new trees. Pepperd said there may be concerns about the trees obscuring businesses’ signs. Gina Scroggs, executive director of Downtown Manhattan, Inc., said so far only one person had expressed concerns over the trees. Scroggs said, overall, most business owners like the “walkability” and the shade the trees provide.
Scroggs also responded to concerns that the improvements are purely cosmetic and unnecessary.
“Over the last three years, we’ve been pointing out all the safety issues that we have, crossing the streets effectively and the rear end crashes that have been happening on a fairly regular basis downtown, inadequate lighting,” Scroggs said. “All of those issues are about to be addressed by these projects, and it just so happens they’re pretty.”
Commissioners also discussed parking issues and possible changes to the city’s parking policies in the downtown area. Hilgers presented information about the current parking trends in the district. Based on the information, commissioners agreed that changes are not necessary immediately but might be in the near future.
The discussion focused on the newly constructed parking garage adjacent to the Hilton Garden Inn and Conference Center on S. 3rd Street.
Hilgers noted that the garage is currently free but is equipped with technology to make it a pay garage. However, he said it wouldn’t make sense now based on the traffic it gets.
“Today what we’re seeing in the parking garage is Conference Center activity,” Hilgers said.
He said an average of around 50 cars a day park in the garage. Commissioner Rich Jankovich noted that a mixed-use building containing residential and retail spaces will soon be built adjacent to the garage. CivicPlus will also add a new office building to the surrounding area.
Jankovich said once those buildings are fully operational, the 437 stalls in the garage will be filled quickly and that will put pressure on parking in the area. He said that might be the time to start implementing some changes. However, commissioners agreed now is not the right time to move to paid parking.
“As soon as the stress of the garage is realized, some consideration is going to have to be given to extending that two-hour parking,” Hilgers said.
Two-hour parking is primarily located along Poyntz Avenue. However, the city only employs one parking services officer, and that officer monitors Aggieville as well as downtown. Expanding the amount of timed parking would require another parking services officer, which would come at a cost to the city.
Commissioner Jim Sherow asked Hilgers whether parking meters might be an alternative. Sherow felt meters would move more people in and out of spaces, which would be beneficial to downtown businesses. Hilgers said it has been considered but installing meters comes at a significant initial cost. He said more cost-benefit analysis would have to be done before making such a change.
Commissioners also discussed increasing the fine for parking violations. Ron Fehr, city manager, said the $5 fine hasn’t changed for many years. Commissioners felt it is no longer a strong deterrent.
“I do think the idea of raising the fines seems to be a no-brainer,” Commissioner Wynn Butler said.