ST. JOSEPH — St. Joseph’s downtown has some striking features, but could use a bit of a nip and tuck and some new accessories to improve her look, a consultant working on a master plan commented Wednesday.
John Houseal, a St. Joseph native with Houseal Lavigne, provided a progress report to various committees on the development plan that has been in the works for about a year. The meeting was to hear from members on the bigger decisions that need to be made before the final report is drafted, he explained.
The popularity of St. Joseph was reaffirmed this weekend with Chalk the Block and other activities and attractions, he noted.
“That was about as active as you could get,” he indicated of the people moving from downtown to the beach and back.
And the town has a view of Lake Michigan that very few other communities have, which needs to be protected, Houseal said.
But there are some major blemishes, as well, he pointed out.
One is parking lots that line Lake Boulevard without any screening with landscaping or other features such as decorative walls or fences. This creates “a dead zone” that is “pretty unsightly,” Houseal said.
Using as few as eight of those spaces would make room for improvements, he said. He called it a “no-brainer” to get this done by next summer.
“You want to have parking in the right place, and the right kind of parking,” where visitors don’t see a field of cars, Houseal said.
Deb Sailor, with the Downtown Development Authority, supported taking short-term steps such as landscaping while the larger development works itself out.
Another area that came in for criticism was Main Street, from Broad Street to the Blossomland Bridge. Residents might be used to it, but it’s “an eyesore” that is unsafe for pedestrians, Houseal said.
Pedestrian crossings aren’t marked, and it’s hard to even see the crosswalks, he said. “It’s really scary.”
There were once medians on that part of the street, but they were removed, and Houseal said he’d like to see them back.
Amy Lipset, a representative of the Michigan Department of Transportation, which has jurisdiction over Main Street, said they are not in favor of medians but would be open to temporary markers to indicate pedestrian crossings, which could be removed for snow plowing.
Houseal wasn’t ready to accept what he heard as a “hard no” on medians, and said his team would be in contact with MDOT.
The stretch below the bluff to the beach is “a no-man’s land for 200 yards,” Houseal said, where “you’re not walking past anything of interest.” Adding benches, drinking fountains and other features could “make that walk a better walk,” he said.
Kim Jorgensen Gane, a member of the city’s sustainability committee, said she’d like to see a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks, and an elevator on the bluff for handicapped visitors.
Another under-utilized area, according to Houseal, is the bluff itself, which he said could be terraced to create a space where people could sit to eat their lunches, watch sunsets or fireworks.
“It’s a pretty cool idea,” Houseal said.
Committee members seemed open to the idea, if the area could be kept natural.
Houseal called the Broad Street approach into downtown – which includes industries, restaurants, the Box Factory for the Arts and the city’s public works department – “the junk drawer of the community – it’s important stuff, but you don’t know where to put it.”
He conceded that most of those buildings aren’t going to be relocated, so he suggested focusing on enhancing the approach with welcome signs and similar amenities.
On the topic of designating additional space for public events, Houseal said the city already has a lot of open space for these activities, and he doesn’t recommend setting aside more land that could be available for future uses or commercial development.
Houseal said that most of what will be in the plan won’t happen for 10 years or more, but there are steps that the community can take that will make a big difference. The master plan is the opportunity “to play “what-if?’” he said.
The final master plan is expected to be presented to the city commissioners by the end of the year.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak