ST. JOSEPH — Looking at the details of the proposed downtown St. Joseph master plan can feel like standing at the edge of the pier and contemplating a plunge into deep waters.
At an open house held Wednesday, many people showed up to make that dive and offer their comments on what the area should look like five or 10 years into the future, or further.
Along with boards illustrating proposals in the plan, residents had the opportunity to study the full document (also available at the city’s website, www.sjcity.com, under the “St. Joseph Downtown Vision” link to the right).
John Houseal, a consultant with Houseal Lavigne, was pleased with the turnout and pointed to some key aspects that residents have suggested over the past year.
Numerous comments dealt with bringing more activities to downtown, particularly those that appeal to teens and young professionals, Houseal said.
Juggling the parking needs of the peak season and off-season is another challenge, he acknowledged.
Concepts included in the plan include replacing surface parking with garages near the bluff and/or in the lot across from the sheriff’s department. Mixed-used development is considered for lots along the bluff and at the county courthouse. Parking is “fundamental” to a successful downtown, Houseal said. But it shouldn’t dominate the landscape, he added.
“You want to see storefronts and shops and people walking around,” he said.
While a parking garage is an expensive, big-ticket item, there are suggestions in the plan that could spruce up downtown almost right away.
Lake Boulevard provides “stunning views” of Lake Michigan, Houseal said. “Then you turn to your left all you see is parked cars.”
At the minimum, the lots could be beautified with landscaping and decorative walls, the plan lays out. Farther down the line they could be locations for shops and outdoor dining.
Those attending the open house said they liked the idea of a terraced slope down the bluff, providing seating, Houseal said.
Main Street is another spot ready for a makeover, he said.
“It’s brutal. It’s ugly. It’s a deteriorating concrete barrier” that is difficult to cross, according to Houseal. Safer, more attractive pedestrian crossings could solve that problem, along with landscaped medians, he suggested. “You want something that is attractive to drive along, and so you know you’re passing through downtown.”
Stephanie Masin, director of the St. Joseph library, was glad to see the plan encompass their location and to indicate the high demand for parking along Market Street.
Masin also liked the idea of a shuttle from the beach and circulating around downtown, with a stop at the library.
Some written comments asked for more plans for biking and walking trails. Another suggested more marinas (the plan envisions more transient marinas along the riverfront, below the courthouse).
Other participants in the open house were skeptical of aspects of the plan.
The plan tries to balance the need for new investment downtown, while maintaining its quaint charm and the things that people like, Houseal said.
This won’t be the last opportunity to comment. After final tweaks by the planning commission, downtown development authority and parks advisory board, the document goes to the city commission for final approval.
Contact: jmatuszak@TheHP.com, 932-0360, Twitter: @HPMatuszak