Sunday, May 19, 2024

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Elon hatches new master plan for downtown development

Elon’s town council has bestowed its blessing on a new master plan for the future development of this municipality’s storied downtown.

The council ultimately gave its unanimous nod to this plan on Monday, effectively supplanting an earlier vision for the downtown area that the town’s leaders adopted about nine years ago.

With its emphasis on broad sidewalks, public gathering places, and infill development, the new master plan strives to make the downtown area more of destination in its own right, and not just a congested entryway to the town’s eponymous university. It also includes suggestions like metered parking and bollards to set off the roadways that are intended to help manage vehicular traffic, along with various proposals to make downtown more hospitable to restaurants, retailers, and other businesses that thrive within the penumbra of the university’s campus.

Although nonbinding in its provisions, the new master plan includes some potentially transformative proposals for the 90-acre area that lies at the heart of this small college town in western Alamance County.

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Among the plan’s more noteworthy features is a detailed streetscaping proposal for a section of Williamson Avenue that’s intended to complement a recent study of the Haggard Avenue Corridor which the town council adopted earlier this month. The plan also includes an ambitious vision for the reconstruction of Elon’s town hall and some development suggestions for other “opportunity sites” that were generally composed with the active collaboration of the property owners.


New downtown plan

All in all, this 98-page document struck the town’s leaders as worthy successor to the town’s previous plan for the downtown area.

[Click HERE to see the full presentation.]

“I think this is a vast improvement from what we sat through in 2014,” declared councilman Monti Allison, “knowing there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in Hades of any of that coming to fruition.”

The process that led to this new plan’s creation began last October when the council commissioned Charlotte-based Benchmark Planning to replace the old downtown master plan with one that didn’t immediately evoke infernal musings from the town’s leaders.

Over the next several months, Benchmark’s consultants embarked on a “downtown assessment” that gave them an overall lay of the land as well as some insights into what people who live and work in Elon actually want.

Jason Ebley, the firm’s president, said that as part of this assessment, his firm conducted a survey that ultimately garnered 269 responses. He added that these individuals expressed a marked preference for dining and entertainment within the downtown area. They also raised complaints about traffic and parking which he and his colleagues tried to address in their subsequent recommendations.

Ebley said that his firm went on to conduct a series of workshops to give the public a chance to weigh in on specific issues, including a streetscaping proposal for Williamson Avenue that the council had asked Benchmark to include in its work. The consultants went on to weave this information into a more coherent form under the guidance of the town’s municipal staff as well as the members of a downtown advisory board.

In the end, the Ebley and his colleagues came up with a collection of proposals that they hoped would serve as a “road map” for the downtown area’s development over “the next five to ten years.”

“The concepts included within this section are intended to serve as a resource for the town council and town staff to use when making decisions about priorities for the downtown and when approached by private developers,” the firm goes on to state in its introduction to these recommendations. “The community can also utilize this plan to advocate for projects and policies that move downtown forward.”

[Story continues below photos and architectural renderings.]

Williamson Avenue streetscaping

The plan’s key recommendations were later summed up by Daniel Douglas, an urban design specialist from Benchmark’s office in Raleigh. In general terms, Douglas noted that the plan aims to reduce the pressure that student parking and vehicular traffic currently puts on the downtown area, and it encourages the town to partner with Elon University to achieve aims that benefit the entire community.

Douglas also called the council’s attention to the streetscaping recommendations for Williamson Avenue, which strive to corral vehicular traffic to make room for ample sidewalks with space for openair dining and other activities. In particular, this streetscaping plan relies on the use of bollards to create a barrier between vehicles and pedestrian traffic. Douglas went on to suggest that the town sacrifice eight on-street parking spots along Williamson in order to widen the sidewalks, although he suggests another area along Lebanon Avenue where it could potentially make up the deficit in public parking.

Another feature of the streetscaping plan was a proposed makeover for the rail crossing on Williamson, which called for brick sidings as the roadway approaches the tracks and a concrete pad where the asphalt currently gives way to the ties.

In addition to the streetscaping plan, Douglas presented some development possibilities for several so-called “opportunity sites” within the downtown area.


Opportunity sites downtown

These four locations included an area along Holt Avenue where the consultants saw the potential for parking, plazas, and multistory buildings which could house a mix of retail activity and rental apartments. In the case of the rental apartments, Douglas suggested that the town could waive its usual parking requirements to allow for the construction of parking-less housing for students and others who primarily hoof it to where they want to go.

Another potential development site that Douglas highlighted was an area along Williamson Avenue where the town is presently constructing a new plaza. The consultant suggested that the university could develop a second plaza to mirror the town’s. He also proposed various other features to strengthen the connection between these two structural bookends and create a new complex he christened “the town/gown plazas.”


Multi-story town hall with rental retail or student housing upstairs

A third locus that Douglas addressed was the current headquarters of Elon’s municipal government. The consultant suggested that the town could acquire an adjacent parcel to allow this facility to be rebuilt on a much wider footprint with multiple stories. He went on to suggest that the town recruit other public uses to fill out the ground floor of the new building, leaving the upper floors available for things like retail or student housing.

“And so basically you sell the air above these public uses for whatever purpose,” he added.

Douglas proceeded to give the council some pointers on how it may want to implement the plan’s recommendations. He encouraged the town’s leaders to tackle the master plan in phases or steps and emphasized that they needn’t necessarily follow through on every single suggestion. He also urged them to consider installing some parking meters along downtown roadways, which he insisted doesn’t seem to be quite the anathema that one would assume for merchants in this part of town.

“The surprise to us,” he added, “was that a lot of downtown business owners we met with were fine with charging for parking – meters along Williamson and Lebanon.”

Douglas also bade the council to look for state and federal grants to help pay for some of the plan’s more ambitious proposals. The meantime, he leaned on the town’s leaders to review their development regulations to ensure that its provisions don’t overly complicate things like outdoor dining that they theoretically want to encourage.

“If we want people to do something in downtown,” he said, “we are responsible for it to be easy for them to do those things.”

These recommendations ultimately received a warm welcome from the council, which eagerly voted to adopted the new master plan. But it also got a rather cheery reception from Elon University’s chief of staff, Patrick Noltemeyer, who happened to be on hand when the master plan was officially hatched.

“I think it’s a great idea,” Noltemeyer told the council before its members gave the plan their unanimous nod. “We certainly realize that a vibrant downtown is critical to our success.”

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