STREETSCAPING STIRS DEBATE
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Whether or not streetscaping will be included in the city of Freeman’s multimillion dollar Main Street project remains to be seen.
Meeting in regular session Wednesday night, April 21 at the Freeman Community Center, the Freeman City Council heard both opposition to, and support for, incorporating decorative elements into the infrastructure of a new downtown roadway, which is expected to be built in 2022.
As a way to quickly help steer the conversation, Freeman Mayor Michael Walter has appointed a seven-person task force made up of city council members, Main Street business owners and representatives with the Freeman Community Development Corporation to bring a recommendation to the full Freeman City Council for consideration.
With the clock ticking — the city hopes to see the final design put in place and bids going out in late fall or by early next year — the task force will need to bring its recommendation to the council by early summer, which will still allow enough time for grant applications and bid specifications.
“Work good, work fast,” said councilor Lonnie Tjaden.
As proposed by Paul Korn and Sayre Associates, the engineering firm charged with the project, the streetscaping would be included at intersections from Railway Street by Associated Milk Producers, Inc. south to Fifth Street, the intersection occupied by Mr. G’s Tires and Stucky’s Electric. Two would be located at Fifth and Main, four more would be included at both Fourth and Main and Third and Main, and two others would be built where Main Street intersects with Railway, for a total of 12 bump-outs at four intersections.
The cost to streetscape each corner would range from $6,000 to $14,000 depending on how elaborate the design is, Korn told the council at last week’s meeting.
Streetscaping — also known as “bump-outs” because they extend beyond the traditional curb and further into the roadway — is not currently included in the cost of the Main Street project, which is estimated at $3.1 million.
The additional cost of the project was just one of the concerns expressed by some who spoke out at last week’s public forum that was part of the city council meeting, and also by city councilors themselves. Those who spoke in opposition to the streetscaping also questioned who would be responsible for their upkeep, particularly in the long-term, what they would mean for the loss of parking spaces and how they might impede the removal of snow by city workers clearing the streets.
“Who’s going to maintain this?” Marlene Herman said at last week’s public forum. “The city workers have enough to do.”
Dave Mensch, who says as a real estate appraiser he understands how property is valued, noted that the lifespan for new landscaping is 15 years if no improvements are made within that time.
“After that, there’s not much left,” he said. “To get this to work you’re going to need annual maintenance, and it’s on city property, so that burden is going to have to fall to your city maintenance crew.”
That includes trimming vegetation, rearranging rocks, cleaning rocks and restoring fabric,” Mensch continued — “all the things you’ve got to do to keep it in good shape.”
Mensch also noted the burden of snow removal around the streetscaping, particularly for corner property owners.
“That’s going to be their’s.”
The challenge of snow removal was raised in earlier discussions around the city council table, as well, with city worker Duane Walters calling the bump-outs a “nightmare” when they were first discussed in March.
Councilor Charles Gering said at last week’s meeting that streetscaping would be problematic for the city’s snow removal effort, particularly after a big winter storm.
“Having spent a few years driving a snow plow I’ve seen what they can and can’t do,” he said. “When you have that 10-inch snow and go to put that big windrow in the center (of Main Street), you’re not going through the corners anymore. There’s no more room.”
And even if the city were to try and make it work, he said, clearing the downtown corridor would take longer “which means, of course, that somebody’s going to have to wait. There’s only so much time and so much truck and so much manpower to run.”
“Snow removal is a very good point,” responded Mayor Walter, but added that he believes it’s manageable.
He said a recent visit to Larchwood, Iowa, a city that has included streetscaping in its Main Street design, revealed that it can be dealt with.
“When we went to Larchwood, one of the people we wanted to talk to was the city worker — the guy who moves the snow in winter,” Walter said. “And he said the first year he had to figure it out, but you learn. They push it to the center just like everything else and they get it done. A little more time consuming? Sure it is.”
Walter took the issue of snow removal one step further and suggested the city should shoulder the responsibility of clearing the downtown sidewalks after it snows, referencing a snowblower the city purchased 30 years ago for that very purpose.
“Our excuse for spending the money on it was that we’re going to do Main Street sidewalks,” he said. “Somewhere down the road that all changed; we don’t do that anymore.”
“It’s a real headache getting people to get the snow onto the street,” the mayor continued. “It would be much easier if the city would just use its vehicle to go up and down each side and move it. We have the machine; we have plenty of workers. I don’t see a reason why the city can’t do that like it was originally planned.”
But Cheryl Gering, a Freeman resident who attended last week’s public forum, said that could open the city up to liability.
“Whoever is responsible for removing the snow is liable if they do not remove it correctly,” she said. “The city (now) assumes that responsibility. That’s an additional consideration.”
Greg Mutchelknaus, who owns the empty lot at Fourth and Main just south of Norm’s Thrifty White Pharmacy, said the bump-outs would take away parking in front of that property.
“It’s a concern of ours,” he said.
In addition to Gering, other city councilors spoke out against the streetscaping as proposed.
“I personally don’t think our Main Street is wide enough,” said council president Terry Jacobsen, who admitted that he likes the way the bump-outs look but questioned whether they would be a benefit to downtown development — one of the reasons people have spoken in favor of the streetscaping.
“Does it look great? Yes,” he said. “Is it going to attract businesses to come to our Main Street, or people to come to our Main Street? I really don’t think that it is. I think it’s a lot of cost.”
Besides, he said, “our Main Street is hidden. Everybody is going out to the highway because of the traffic. I think as a city, until we start doing more to promote and to get people onto Main Street, I just feel it’s a waste of money.”
And he said the new roadway, sidewalks, curbs and lighting will already go a long way in improving the aesthetics of downtown.
Councilor Blaine Saarie said he has heard a lot of negatives.
“They do not want it,” he said at last week’s meeting. “Snow removal has been the issue that keeps coming up over and over. Who’s going to take care it? That’s been an issue.”
Saarie said he likes the idea of sprucing up downtown but wondered if there are other things the city could do that would eliminate concerns.
“I don’t know what the answer is,” he said. “There’s a lot of thinking that does need to be put into it, no doubt.”
Councilor Charly Waltner expressed concerned about both snow removal and upkeep in the long-term.
“If they’re not maintained in 10 to 15 years, they’re not going to look good at all,” he said. “I’d like to keep what we have looking good.”
And if improving the quality of life is an objective, Waltner continued, why not spend money elsewhere, suggesting a splashpad in the city park would be more effective way to attract families.
Jeff Buechler, president of the Freeman Community Development Corporation (FCDC), spoke at last week’s meeting and strongly encouraged a multi-faceted task force be put in place to further study the issue.
The FCDC, he said, was neutral on the matter.
Buechler reminded the public that the FCDC does not just represent the business community, “but the entire community,” and said that an internal committee made up of representatives from all elements of the FCDC — economic development, tourism, education and commerce — met to discuss the plan.
“We are not at a point right now of officially supporting, or in opposition of, this project,” he said. “We do not have enough information where we would feel comfortable saying this is absolutely a must have, or an absolutely must not have.”
Buechler, speaking on behalf of the FCDC, acknowledged the pros and cons.
He said there were “many positive attributes,” including the creation of an inviting atmosphere that supports what the FCDC promotes.
“It’s a sign that the community is willing to step out of the box and do something that other communities are not willing or able to do,” Buechler said.
But he also spoke to the concerns.
What would this mean for distractions or obstructions, he asked. Who will decide what will be acceptable? What liability issues would there be for the city or business owners? What about maintenance; who will be responsible? What about snow removal and the impact on parking.
“It’s a big change,” Buechler said. “We understand there’s a need to move this along rapidly; this is the time the project needs to be decided.”
In favor of
Last week’s public hearing also revealed support for the streetscaping.
In a short presentation that preceded the public input, Korn put into context the streetscraping option and called it “a growing trend.” And, early on in the discussions about the Main Street project, he said he heard of interest in doing something extra with the intersections.
“We felt that this warrants further consideration and it’s my job to present those options to you,” said Korn, noting there were multiple options. “There’s a lot to choose from; they’re going to have to be narrowed down.”
Korn said communities that have included streetscaping are seeing return in multiple ways.
“The word that jumps out is ‘identity,’” he said. “You have an opportunity to shape the identity of how they view your community.”
Other benefits include safety, Korn said. Not only will the bump-outs inherently slow traffic, because they enable sidewalks to extend further into the roadway, they also shorten the distance for pedestrians crossing the street.
And they actually improve sightlines. A small tree vs. a large truck parked closest to the intersection creates better visibility of oncoming traffic.
“Landscaping is done in a way that does not obstruct sightlines,” he said.
The streetscaping also improves aesthetics, creates a more pedestrian friendly environment and can enhance the economic viability of downtown.
“It makes Main Street more inviting,” Korn said, and “really enhances that core portion of the business district.”
Three members of the Freeman Regional Health Services medical community — Michelle Neuharth, director of nursing at Oakview Terrace; Dr. Shakil Hafiz, chief medical provider; and Courtney Unruh, CEO — all spoke in favor of the bump-outs.
“Bringing young families to this town is a big deal,” Neuharth said, suggesting that the streetscaping on Main Street would create a welcoming environment that could help impact that.
Neuharth also acknowledged the concerns shared at the meeting and spoke in favor of a task force to further study the possibilities.
“I don’t know if that’s an option,” she said, “but I do think that being here tonight and discussing this means we want to invest in our community — we want to bring those young families to our community.”
Hafiz spoke to the issue from the perspective of safety.
“The entire discussion we’ve been having has been about appearance,” he said. “As a professional physician — somebody who covers the emergency room — I just wanted to highlight the safety aspect of it.”
He acknowledged that the number of pedestrian/vehicle accidents in Freeman have been few, but advanced training in all areas of medicine show that “the best thing that could happen is to prevent it in the first place. That’s the phrase — an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.
“If the safety benefits are truly what they’re saying,” Hafiz said, “then do not overlook that.”
He also spoke from the perspective of a parent who emphasizes safety; as the street is today, Hafiz said he is hesitant to say yes when his children ask if they can go to the library by themselves.
“If this project were to happen and there were those safety features and that clear visibility,” he said, “then I would feel much more comfortable.”
Scott Brewer, the new chief of police who moved his family here earlier this year, spoke in favor of the streetscaping.
“I come from Baltimore,” he said. “I’ve seen communities fail because they have not beautified anything. I don’t want to see that happen here. I think the safety (it creates) and bringing new families here would benefit the city.”
Freeman resident Evan Waltner encouraged the city to think of the bump-outs as a long-term investment.
“I personally have nothing to gain or lose by it,” he said. “It doesn’t affect my property; it doesn’t affect how I shop on Main Street. All I can say about it is, ‘vision.’”
Waltner said the decision many decades ago to build a school on the baren area of ground where last week’s meeting was taking place was controversial, “but time passed and the town filled in.”
The decision to build a hospital was a game-changer, too; “I don’t think anybody could have predicted how that would develop in the last 70 years,” Waltner said. “The high school — same situation. Very controversial to build on the outskirts of town, huge tract of land, and look at how that’s worked out.
“That all took guts and vision to make those decisions,” he continued. “I don’t know if bump-outs are the right decision or not, but I sure hope we do something to beautify Main Street. The generations that are coming up are going to inherit the decisions we make now.”
And Mayor Walter himself spoke in favor of the streetscaping after initially thinking no. It was only after a trip to Larchwood with councilor Doug Uecker — who was not present at last week’s meeting — that his mind changed.
“We went over there and I looked at them and I changed my opinion,” Walter said. “What I saw there totally changed my mind of what can be done. It answered 90% of the questions asked here.”
The mayor encouraged compromise.
“We don’t get many chances to do this,” he said. “There’s 12 bump-outs on the proposal. I don’t see 12 bump-outs coming; that would be problematic. I can see eight of them.
“That is what the committee is going to have to come up with.”
But he reminded the public that it’s the city council that will ultimately decide what happens.
“The city is going to make the decision because we’re going to be responsible for it,” Walter said, “and not just today, but for 10 years down the road — 20 years down the road.”