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Burlington city council hears plans to widen sidewalks, cut on-street parking in downtown business district

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Burlington’s city council has agreed to move forward with a “streetscaping” plan for the city’s downtown business district that would give pedestrians more of a leg up as they negotiate the sidewalks and streets in this 16-block zone.

The council gave its provisional nod to this proposal on Monday – potentially clearing the way for the installation of raised crosswalks; the elimination of 65 on-street parking spots; and even the restoration of two-way vehicle traffic to a one-way stretch of South Main Street.

Although the council did have some minor quibbles with some parts of the plan, its members were generally pleased with the overall thrust of these proposed transformations when they were formally laid out at their latest monthly work session.

During this two-hour confab, Todd Lambert, Burlington’s city engineer, reminded the city’s elected leaders that they had previously authorized this proposed redesign of the district as part of a state-subsidized plan to replace the subterranean water and sewer lines in this part of the city.

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“As the streets are already going to be disrupted, the council decided to look at the whole streetscape, Lambert recalled during the work session. “So, we’re going to look at sidewalks, look at parking, look at traffic flows and figure out what you want the downtown to look like.”

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City engineer Todd Lambert and Erin Nettles, the city’s downtown manager.

The city engineer went on to present a rough reimagining of the district’s sidewalks and streets that a consulting firm called WithersRavenal had drawn up based on the specifications of city staff members. According to the city’s finance department, WithersRavenal has been commissioned to produce these streetscaping designs for a fee of $981,300. The firm has also been awarded a contract worth $1,648,000 to handle the design work for the state-funded utility upgrades.

WithersRavenal’s tentative vision for this project’s streetscaping component calls for wider, rambling sidewalks to accommodate outdoor dining and other activities as well as raised crosswalks at most of the district’s intersections – features which Lambert likened to the “speed tables” that the city recently installed along the streets that crisscross Burlington’s Willowbrook Park. The plan also called for traffic lights at intersections that currently have stop signs, a roundabout at the awkwardly aligned juncture of Maple Avenue and Worth Street, and the restoration of two-way traffic to the two blocks of South Main Street which presently run in a single direction.

Lambert informed the council that the general aim of these proposed transformations is to make the downtown business district more amenable to foot traffic.

“The purpose of everything we’re looking at is to make downtown a more pedestrian-focused avenue,” he added. “The raised intersections [for instance] reduce speeds and make it a safer atmosphere for pedestrians…The more people you get downtown, the more you want to focus on having a pedestrian atmosphere.”

Lambert insisted that most of these pedestrian friendly enhancements can be achieved without a significant detriment to vehicular traffic. He noted that, for instance, that the raised crosswalks won’t require any speed limit reductions since the city has already decreed a 20-mile-an-hour maximum across most of the district.

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Lambert nevertheless conceded that the city will need to sacrifice many of the district’s on-street parking spaces in order to implement the streetscaping plan as presented. He observed that many on-street spots will have to be kicked to the proverbial curb in order to widen the sidewalks or improve visibility at intersections. He added that most of the district’s angled spaces will be replaced with parallel spots – with an inevitable decrease in the number of vehicles that can park on the street.

“We’ve got eight city parking lots in the downtown area, So, there’s definitely good capacity there. . . and this plan would rely on folks utilizing those lots.”

– asst. city manager nolan kirkman

All told, Lambert said that the streetscaping plan would nix 65 of 299 street-side parking spaces across the width and breadth of the 16-block zone. Meanwhile, Nolan Kirkman, one of Burlington’s assistant city managers, assured the council that visitors will still find plenty of free parking within the district’s numerous public parking lots.

“We’ve got eight city parking lots in the downtown area,” he recalled. “So, there’s definitely good capacity there…and this plan would rely on folks utilizing those lots.”

Yet, the loss of on-street parking was apparently one of the biggest grievances that city staff members heard last week when they solicited input from the district’s property owners and patrons.

Erin Nettles, the city’s downtown manager, informed the council that staff members ultimately elicited feedback from 20 individuals at a public workshop on Thursday. She added that most of the feedback was favorable to things like the proposed roundabout and the raised crosswalk. But the mood soured when it came to the restoration of two-way traffic along Main Street – which Nettles interpreted as a referendum on the concomitant reduction in on-street parking.

“It sounded like the parking spaces was the issue, and not the two-way flow,” she elaborated. “But we can’t do the two-way flow without parallel parking.”

Nettles added that some downtown merchants were also adamant about the need for a dedicated loading zone along Main Street. This idea, likewise, found favor with several members of the council. In the meantime, Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler asked staff members to conduct a census of the district’s public parking lots to confirm that they, indeed, have the room to accommodate drivers who currently park on the street.

Yet, in the end, the council generally seemed comfortable with the broad strokes of the proposed streetscaping plan.

“I like all the elements of [the streetscaping plan].  It may be uncomfortably different in the beginning. But we’ve got a lot of things going [that could benefit from it].

“I hope we [will] have a parking problem in downtown.”

– Burlington mayor Jim Butler

“Personally, I like the plan,” Butler declared during the work session. “I like all the elements of it. It may be uncomfortably different in the beginning. But we’ve got a lot of things going [that could benefit from it].”

“I like the symmetry and the flow of it,” agreed council member Kathy Hykes, “and I think we have enough parking downtown.”

Butler went on to suggest that a shortage of parking may actually be a good problem to have – as it would indicate a vibrant, well-patronized downtown district.

“I hope we have a parking problem in downtown,” he opined.

In either case, the council reached a consensus to proceed with the streetscaping plan, which Lambert said would be implemented once the aforementioned state-funded utility work is complete. He added that the state is anxious to have contractors break ground on the water and sewer line replacements no later than December of 2024.


Read the newspaper’s editorial page view of the streetscaping plan: https://alamancenews.com/killing-downtown-burlington-again/

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