“A successful store and a downtown should approach their businesses the same way,” said downtown revitalization expert Michele Reeves.
Reeves gave her last of four presentations Thursday night, as part of the Building Blocks for a Successful Downtown program, to a packed first floor and people on the balcony at the Performing Arts Center.
Astoria Sunday Market, Pacific Power and the city of Astoria funded Reeves, who introduced the program in mid-May at the Banker’s Suite. She talked about revitalization tailored to Astoria at the Columbia River Maritime Museum (CRMM) in November and held a workshop on creating a cohesive city identity in February. In between meetings, she talked to business owners, studied downtown, took local stakeholders on a tour of the revitalized Mississippi Street neighborhood in Portland and provided hands-on courses on how to enhance downtown.
Her final report is expected to become available online from the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association around April 15.
Young people want a walkable environment; the internet is becoming more important than a car; suburbs suffer more economically than inner cities; and infrastructure is increasingly too expensive to maintain – Reeves threw out statistics that point to an urban shift, adding that Astoria needs to leverage its unique qualities.
“You don’t have anything interacting with you until you get to 14th Street, which is your eastern front door,” said Reeves, who recorded her vehicular approach to Astoria from the east and west. She recommended more colors, murals or other fixtures on building faces, dramatic lighting and a closer connection between downtown and museums such as CRMM, one of Astoria’s best sellers.
The four- or five-lane highway, derelict buildings and blank spots of Uniontown, she said, are fairly unappealing to visitors and might detract them from venturing farther into Astoria from U.S. Highway 101. After that comes the frenetic entrance to Astoria’s one-way couplet, with multiple turns before reaching downtown.
“Really, it’s a super-confusing front door,” she said of the western approach to downtown. “It’s a stressful front door.”
The color beige, she added, should also be replaced by different colors to create a more exciting appearance, along with the addition of trees, sculptures and other features to provide more of a community identity to drivers approaching downtown.
“In a downtown, your streets and you sidewalks are your aisles,” said Reeves, who suggested that Marine Drive eventually be a three-lane, two-way arterial for U.S. Highway 30 instead of a confusing and inherently pedestrian-unfriendly, one-way couplet.
“Imagine a store you have to worry about dying while you’re walking around in the store,” she said, adding, to applause from the crowd, that the need for street-crossing flags are a sign of a badly designed street grid. “Fear of death is bad for business.”
Reeves touted two-way streets as safer, pushed for more greenery along Marine Drive and said sculptures and other could take the place of trees for an identity on Commercial Street.
Lobbying the Oregon Department of Transportation with similarly placed cities is Astoria’s best chance of making Marine Drive into U.S. Highway 30, said Reeves.
After coming to Astoria for decades, Reeves said she only learned about the Astoria Riverwalk in her most recent work with the city, and that the asset is too hidden from downtown. She suggested north-south arterials such as 14th Street and other indicators to get people moving toward the waterfront.
The city needs to remove regulatory barriers to placing merchandise on sidewalks, said Reeves, so businesses can create more street-level dialogue with the customer through products, eating areas and other activities outside and visible from the street, blending the entire downtown environment.
Fixtures and products
The fixtures of downtown, said Reeves, are buildings, and the products are the businesses inside them.
“Introduce three-color paint schemes,” said Reeves, adding that the city should have a matching grant program for storefront improvement. “Make your buildings look fantastic at night.”
Those improvement programs, she added, should work out from the areas of downtown with the highest level of activity, especially between 11th Street on the west, 14th Street on the east, Duane Street to the south and Marine Drive to the north.
“Downtown Astoria takes its identity from its ground-level businesses,” said Reeves, stressing street-level dialogue such as merchandise and dining on the sidewalks, keeping businesses colorful and in the right-sized spaces, using original materials on historical buildings and engaging all the customer’s senses at the sidewalk level.
On the derelict Flavel properties near the western “front door”?to downtown, Reeves said she wasn’t advocating anything illegal, but related that former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley once sent crews to bulldoze a derelict runway at night, paying later fines but making the effort much more expedient.
Bringing in light industrial businesses that can turn vacant buildings into streetside displays of manufacturing, she said, can also help deal with vacant spaces.
Parking policies for downtown
Reeves, tackling the parking issue, popped a graphic she compiled onto the screen showing numerous off-street lots throughout the downtown core, many of them below the street level. There’s lots of parking, she added, but lots of it is “pit parking.”
“It almost feels like it’s been bombed,” she said about the lots located below street level where buildings used to stand. “There’s a particular Dresden-like feel to Marine Drive.”
Those pits, she said, could facilitate the need for more long-term parking areas.
“Every community that is successful figures out how to share parking for the benefit of downtown,” she said. “You cannot attack parking in this piecemeal fashion. Think about your entire downtown store.”
Astoria was accepted to the Transforming Downtown level of the Oregon Main Street program about two and a half years ago, receiving extra technical assistance the state on its revitalization efforts. Sheri Stuart, director of the program, has been studying the ADHDA’s capacity to prioritize and possibly carry out some of Reeves’ recommendations.
“I want to figure out how can we make everyone feel like they’re a part of the downtown revitalization effort,” said Stuart, adding that the ADHDA?has re-energized around Oregon Main Street over the last couple of years.
She said the group, which currently uses volunteers and a one-year intern coordinator, needs a permanent director to help take it to the next level.
She added that the ADHDA?needs to gather more feedback from businesses, continue its cultural events, develop a brand and deal with the parking issue.
“We’re not going to lose it,” said Susan Trabucco, who served her last night as chairwoman of the Business Development Committee before passing the position on to David Reid, an insurance broker with Aflac Insurance. “That’s what the next steps are about.”