Downtown St. Joe dreaming

Shoppers walk through downtown St. Joseph earlier this year. A developing master plan, which will be available at an open house Wednesday, envisions future development, parking structures and other changes for the near and far future.

ST. JOSEPH — A vision for what downtown St. Joseph could look like decades down the road – from pedestrian plazas to parking garages – was reviewed by the master plan steering committee Wednesday, ahead of a public open house scheduled for next week.

John Houseal, a St. Joseph native and urban planner with Houseal Lavigne, went over the details of the proposals that have been 18 months in the making. The steering committee is made up of representatives from the city commission, zoning board of appeals, planning commission, downtown development authority, St. Joseph Today, parks advisory board, and residents.

Residents can get a look at the plans on the drawing board and offer comments at the open house from 4-7 p.m. Wednesday in city commission chambers.

The master plan, which provides a guideline for future development, focuses on such issues as attracting retail, commercial and residential projects, parking, traffic, boating access, pedestrian safety, and biking and walking trails, among other topics. The study area encompasses the main downtown area and also considers areas below the bluff, adjacent residential neighborhoods, space east of Main Street and the approaches to downtown.

The draft document identifies 15 sites for potential development, those most likely to be reconfigured in the future, Houseal said. These include sites along Lake Boulevard that are used as parking lots. Houseal has noted that these spaces are unsightly, and at the least the city should add landscaping and decorative walls that would make them look “infinitely better,” he said.

If the lots are ever sold for private development, the lost parking spaces could be made up with a parking garage nearby, Houseal showed.

The report eyes the Silver Beach Hotel, the Berrien County Courthouse parking lot, the shopping plaza across the street and the parking lot across from the jail, locations Houseal said are “crucial” for future development because they can accommodate large projects that won’t block the view of the lake and beaches.

For the hotel lot, the plan considers a parking deck for guests and additional parking for other visitors, with mixed-used development facing State Street in what is now what Houseal called “a dead zone.” The consultant described the shopping plaza as “one of the more aesthetically deficient sites” in the downtown zone, with parking all around the building with no landscaping or screening. The plaza could be replaced with a multi-story development, he suggested.

Retail, commercial, restaurant and condominium space is envisioned for the courthouse parking lot, with bike trails and a transient marina below along the riverfront. Parking would be replaced by a two or three-story parking deck at Church and Port streets.

Houseal emphasized that these are not recommended developments, but are included to show the “infinite number” of possibilities.

One concept not yet included in the draft is a proposal to make Port and Ship streets, both now one-way, into two-way roadways, Houseal told the committee for the first time. He said he has discussed the possibility with the Michigan Department of Transportation, whose officials are open to the idea.

Having Ship Street be two-way, under the city’s jurisdiction, would provide room for striped bike lanes, Houseal said. MDOT would retain control of Port Street. Houseal acknowledged that such a move would require reconfiguring the intersection where the streets split.

The downtown parking is “not woefully deficient,” and is, of course, heavily used during the peak season, Houseal noted. There is a lot of free parking but no revenue to maintain it, he pointed out. To correct this, he recommended that officials look at adding parking fees for downtown, at around $1 an hour for visitors and 50 cents an hour for residents.

“With any successful downtown, the city has to get into the parking game,” Houseal said.

Other aids to getting people to available parking and area attractions include signs, with electronic signs noting the number of spaces available. The plan considers a shuttle service that Houseal said “has to be reliable.”

The steering committee will see the draft one more time before the end of the year and then it will be forwarded to the parks, planning and zoning commissions, before being sent to the city commission for final approval.

Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak