Archive for Thursday, October 27, 2005

Public investment could spark downtown revitalization, consultant says

October 27, 2005

The city could help spur investment in downtown with investments of its own, a consultant told a group of downtown stakeholders near the conclusion of a daylong workshop on revitalizing the district.

Marty Shukert said tax breaks available to owners of businesses, such as De Soto offers in its downtown business district, usually weren't successful until cities showed they were serious about changing the character of areas with investments of their own.

In an event jointly sponsored by the De Soto Economic Development Council, Shukert visited De Soto last Thursday for a day of activities and a morning discussion session that sought to identify the district's challenges, assets and potential. It was the consultant's second visit to De Soto, having facilitated the Community Housing Assessment in the spring of 2004.

The morning discussion was followed by a walk-through of downtown and, finally, an afternoon wrap up in which Shukert sketched out a preliminary concept for downtown improvements.

The discussion of downtown was expanded to include more than the two blocks of 83rd Street from Shawnee to Peoria streets. The discussion, subsequent walking tour and preliminary recommendations concerned a triangle roughly bordered by the east Y, Lexington Avenue to the south, Ottawa Street to the west and the Kansas River to the north.

The morning discussion identified the Kansas River as an undeveloped asset. It was also agreed downtown had a scarcity of commercial space downtown because it was developed to serve a much smaller community.

De Soto, Shukert said, had a problem that is shared with many communities. When entering the city from Kansas Highway 10 on Lexington Avenue or Kill Creek Road, it is attractive "until you get to the place you want to make your best impression," he said.

With a sketch drawn after the walking tour, Shukert shared what he called a preliminary concept that would attempt to tie the downtown triangle together with a number of "pearls on a necklace."

Among the pearls was a joint public/private project to develop the open land east of the grocery store. In Shukert's sketch, the east half would be a park with a pond, while the western half would be developed to mixed commercial and office uses that would pay for the project.

At the east Y, Shukert suggested Lexington could be divided for about a block stretch to give it a boulevard look. That would tend to slow down traffic at the downtown turnoff and the retail office center near Morse Market, he said. It would also encourage foot traffic by allowing pedestrians a place of refuge while crossing the street.

As for the downtown corridor, Shukert suggested an awareness of the two commercial blocks could be conveyed with common lighting and landscape elements carried east to Miller Park.

"It establishes a vocabulary of features that tie that area to downtown -- things that give that street a promenade quality," he said.

Picking up with an idea advanced by De Soto Mayor Dave Anderson, Shukert proposed the mobile home parks near Miller Park be converted to a "senior village." With pedestrian ties, the area is located to the commercial and recreational needs that appeal to seniors, he said.

As for downtown, Shukert agreed the core had a limited amount of commercial and office space. But there were opportunities to expand, perhaps with multi-story buildings that offered mixed residential and office uses above commercial space, he said. Such buildings would add "weight" to the district, he said.

Shukert suggested the city needed to communicate its desire with the Postal Service and the Johnson County Library District about its interest in keeping the two institutions downtown and its willingness to work with them on expansion.

The riverfront could be made an attraction through walking trails along the bluff and, perhaps, an overlook at the north terminus of Peoria. The consultant also suggested the city's old water plant on Shawnee Street could be redeveloped as commercial space with a possible river view.

The concept might seem ambitious to De Soto viewers, but Shukert successfully designed more complex revitalization projects for the Iowa cities of Pella and Shenandoah.

The concept's different elements were meant to work as a whole, but others could be developed independently -- such as the lighting and landscaping on 83rd -- and without the participation of the private sector, Shukert said.

De Soto EDC director Sara Ritter and Anderson said Shukert provided valuable insights.

"I was impressed with how much he knows about our community from his work on the CHAT and the discussion we had in the morning and how well he understands our needs and opportunities," she said.

Anderson agreed with Shukert's assessment that the city would have to take the lead in investing downtown. The city could use the water plant and involvement in a project west of the grocery store as "wedges" that could jumpstart private development, he said.

Anderson said he looked forward to a return visit at which Shukert would expand on his concept and explore possible financing to make its part a reality. A visit would cost the EDC $12,000 -- a fee Anderson said could be shared by the city's fund and corporate donations of EDC members.

Ritter said the second visit would be a multi-day event in which the participation of a broad range of residents would be encouraged.

"It's not the city council's downtown, or the EDC's downtown," she said. "It's the everybodies' downtown."

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