The committee voted 2-0-1 on Wednesday, with Councilman Philip Goldstein forced to abstain from the vote, to hear a detailed report of how feasible the plans for the Square are, including parking meters, wider sidewalks and trash collection. The council will hear the report at its next scheduled meeting Aug. 11.
After discussing those parts of the plan, Goldstein attempted to excuse himself when the talk turned to a piece of property on the Square that Mayor Steve Tumlin suggested the city buy. Goldstein said participating in that portion of the discussion would be a conflict of interest, but he did want to discuss the other parts of the plan at the August meeting.
A solution to the conflict of interest, he said, would be to separate any talk about his property from the other parts of the plan.
But, when Goldstein asked the chairman of the committee, Grif Chalfant, to separate the items, he was denied. Chalfant looked to the only other committee member, Andy Morris, and asked if he would like to separate the discussion as Goldstein was requesting.
“I think we leave it like it is,” Morris said, which forced Goldstein to leave his seat and move to the audience, where he was not allowed to continue discussing or vote on the matter.
Tumlin’s suggestion for Goldstein’s property, which sits empty near the Strand Theatre, is to use the space for a new Visitor’s Bureau.
“I know of a property owned by a councilman,” Tumlin said, with a glance toward Goldstein.
Goldstein said before the meeting, “that property is leased.”
The fenced-off hole at 77 North Park Square has been empty since Goldstein demolished the 1917-era, two-story brick and wood building known as the Cuthbertson building in 2010. Goldstein said he wanted to build a five-story mixed-use building in its place, reaching a height of 66 feet. But in 2011, the City Council passed an ordinance lowering height restrictions on the Square from 85 feet to 54 feet. Goldstein filed a lawsuit against the city over the ordinance and lost.
The Visitor’s Bureau is on Depot Street off West Park Square, but Tumlin said it needs to be more visible.
The new building could also house bathrooms for people visiting the Square, Tumlin said.
Other parts of the plan
Before the controversy around Goldstein’s property, Tumlin gave a detailed description and passionate speech about his plans for the downtown area, but few comments or suggestions were made about the plan, which included four detailed changes to sidewalks, dumpsters and parking on the Square.
Tumlin’s presentation was direct enough that most members of the council were ready almost immediately to agree to looking into planning his ideas.
“Let’s take the level of the Square to the level it needs to go,” Tumlin said. “I think it would enhance it to the level it needs to be.”
The three-year plan meant to improve the aesthetics and walkability of the Square includes a few main suggestions.
Parking meters downtown
The mayor wants to install parking meters on the spaces around the edges of the four streets that make up the Square.
The mayor wants to dedicate the funds the parking meters will collect to the downtown area around the Square.
Tumlin said the meters are a good way to regulate downtown parking.
He said the free parking spaces on the Square are used more often by people going to the courthouse in the morning than by people visiting the shops and restaurants. The city and the county both own parking decks near the courthouse, but they charge $5 per car.
Tumlin said it’s not fair for those who want to eat breakfast or lunch in the Square to not have a place to park. He said if the parking spaces were metered, people going to the courthouse would use the decks they’re supposed to.
Tumlin said he wants to charge for the spaces on the Square from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., but leave the spaces free after that.
If the council does approve installing parking meters, the mayor said he would like to see them be the “high tech” variety that accept credit cards, not just coins.
The council also asked the city staff to begin looking into solutions to get dumpsters off the street and provide “a better, cleaner, aesthetically pleasing, efficient way of servicing trash.”
Tumlin said businesses have long complained about overflowing trash onto the street. The City Council has been debating the issue for years.
“I think we need to get the smell and ‘unattraction’ off the street,” Tumlin said. “We need to at least start looking at is there a way to improve it.”
Tumlin suggested picking up trash downtown more often, and Morris agreed with the idea.
“It’s my understanding we have a truck that would come in if we gave each restaurant a (limit of trash cans) then they’d come in and pick it up every morning at 6:30 before anyone was out there,” Morris said.
Councilman Johnny Walker previously showed the council a new type of dumpster that looks like regular trash bins above ground but empty into larger dumpster-sized receptacles below the surface. But Tumlin said they could be too expensive to be practical.
Tumlin suggested widening the sidewalks on the four streets of the Square by 10 to 15 feet. That would reduce the roads by one lane, from four to three lanes.
Tumlin said this won’t create traffic problems because all the streets that feed into the city are three lanes.
Councilwoman Michelle Cooper Kelly said she likes the mayor’s idea for wider sidewalks.
“Anything that gets people out and about on our Square is a good thing,” she said.
Goldstein said he wanted the city to look into other options that wouldn’t require reducing the number of lanes on the roads, such as narrowing the existing lanes to widen the sidewalks.
City staff will bring back a more detailed version of Tumlin’s plan for more discussion at the August meeting.