Friday, April 12, 2024

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Graham, NC 27253
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Killing downtown Burlington – again

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One would hope that cities and city councils would learn a few lessons from the past.

But, alas, it seems that Burlington’s city officials and council members are bound and determined to repeat some of the failed efforts of yesteryear that led to the decades-long decline and demise of the city’s downtown business district.

In the 1970’s, the prevailing fad was “pedestrian malls.” So city council after city council in communities across the country took their cues from the ever-present municipal consultants – with a little help, as we recall, from the federal government – and broke up street pavement, built extravagant pedestrian plazas, and reduced parking, thereby hampering access to downtown merchants.

Downtowns everywhere deteriorated, including Burlington’s.  In Burlington’s case, the city closed off part of South Main Street in the hub of the retail district.

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Businesses that had been thriving left behind empty storefronts and moved to shopping malls – a trend that, no doubt, was already endangering the vitality of traditional, downtown retail areas, but which was inevitably accelerated by their follies in urban design.

For decades, much of downtown Burlington looked like a ghost town.

We thought that city officials had finally realized the futility of the “pedestrian mall” concept a few decades ago when – after having lived with the demise of downtown for almost a generation – they tore up the mall that had eliminated street access along the 300 block of South Main Street.

Over the next several years, downtown would regain some if its former luster, although it never fully recovered its status as the premier retail destination for Burlington residents.

But now, as the mistakes of the past fade further from memory, a new Burlington city council is once again flirting with the “pedestrian-friendly” excesses that had originally brought about the destruction of downtown Burlington.

For more than five decades, Burlington has not had the same kind of thriving central business district that much smaller municipal neighbors like Graham and Mebane have enjoyed.

Yet, inexplicably, Burlington’s city council actually expressed interest this week in a fancy “streetscaping” plan (where did this idea even come from in the first place?) that’s predicated on the notion that the downtown area is, or could become, a Mecca for foot traffic.

Ostensibly an effort to gussy up the downtown area, this plan takes advantage of upcoming water and sewer line replacements that the state has agreed to subsidize in this part of the city.

But buried amid its vaulting prescriptions for a bustling, “pedestrian-focused” downtown with fancy concepts of wider sidewalks and other high-minded concepts is one of the same failed measures that crippled the area for decades beginning in the 1970’s: the proposed eradication of much on-street parking.  Removed altogether would be 65 street parking spaces from this part of town.

Using an updated, but equally unrealistic, form of the pro-pedestrian lingo that was employed in the 1970’s, this “streetscaping plan” will have the same result as its predecessor: the promised groundswell of pedestrians will prove illusory because the real people who might otherwise visit downtown won’t be getting out of their cars, since there’ll be no place to park.

There’s always a consultant involved in these sorts of gimmicks, and this is no exception.  In this case, the private sector consultant is a firm called WithersRavenal, and believe it or not, this company’s so-called expertise in urban design is costing taxpayers almost $1 million! (So it must be a good idea.)

City officials were practically frothing over with enthusiasm this week when they were shown this firm’s plan for downtown, which really amounts to choking off whatever revitalization of downtown may be going on or might otherwise be possible.

Of course, that’s not the way it was presented.

But it’s, most assuredly and predictably, what will be the actual result.

One of the consultant’s fancies that seems to have left city officials enamored with the plan is the idea of wider sidewalks by converting  angled-parking through much of downtown into parallel spaces – making parking both more difficult and harder to come by since fewer spots will be able to fit in the same length of roadway.

Frankly, we don’t know why wider sidewalks are needed.  Except for the annual Christmas parade, we’ve never seen Burlington’s sidewalks crowded to any extent resembling a need to widen them.

And we’re certainly not sure it’s reasonable to widen them simply so that various businesses, presumably restaurants and/or bars, can have “sidewalk” dining and/or drinking.

Although these hypothetical outdoor venues will remain public property, we’re quite sure the city isn’t going to charge any rent, or otherwise ask merchants for any contribution to the project in exchange for the right to monopolize the additional sidewalk space.

But the real kicker is the assumption – just as much in error now as it was in the 1970’s – that patrons of various downtown businesses will be willing to walk a block or more – this time from city-owned parking lots that city officials are plugging as alternatives to more convenient on-street parking to get to their ultimate retail or dining destinations.

They won’t.

They’ll go elsewhere.

Burlington’s consultants and now its city council appear to be willing to create a shortage of on-street parking spaces in downtown, cutting the number dramatically, by 65 spaces.

Burlington’s mayor Jim Butler made what we think amounts to an admission of the potential adverse consequences from the plan. “I hope we have a parking problem in downtown,” he said in what he apparently considered a compliment to the idea. We consider it a stunning admission and searing indictment of the concept.

The public has clearly not been consulted, but we can imagine their vociferous opposition, based on previous experience.

As is, fewer than two dozen people – most of whom were city officials and local business owners – turned out for an “information session” held last week.  According to the city’s own tabulations, only four members of the general public – that’s four altogether – weighed in on the plan, but the objections were strenuous from the few who were present.

So now is the time when “regular folks” need to make their voices heard – before the city council moves down the path of killing downtown Burlington, what’s left of it, once again.

Burlington council members seem to be aware of the changing demographics of the city – and the increase in its older population – based on their excessive enthusiasm for quadrupling the number of pickleball courts throughout the city, apparently a new favorite sport of the elderly.

And while those folks may be agile on the pickleball courts, we dare say they do not want to – and will not, in practice – walk a block or two from a municipal parking lot to a downtown destination, to say nothing of less mobile older residents who want to pull up in front of their destinations and simply aren’t able to make the longer hikes.

So just when it looked like Burlington’s downtown might be on the verge of a renaissance, the city council appears ready to kill it off –again.

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