SMYRNA — A city task force met this week to review an updated plan for redesigning the heart of the downtown after public input was collected at a series of open houses.
The Smyrna City Council approved a preliminary concept for the redesign of the area — currently occupied by a roundabout and fountain — earlier this year in a 5-2 vote.
Architecture firm Pond and Company then created two detailed concepts that the public reviewed at open houses last month. A combination of the two concepts was presented Tuesday to a task force charged with shepherding the project through its final design phases.
Under the new concept, the redesign would include a lawn space, interactive water feature, several peripheral plaza areas, seating, shade structures, new trees, public bathrooms, bike racks and a stage for concerts and events. In place of the roundabout, King Street would be extended north to connect to Powder Springs Street.
The redesign is being led by Mayor Derek Norton, who appointed the task force. The task force consists of Norton, the five council members who voted for the redesign and three other Smyrna residents.
Budget adjustmentsIn June, when the redesign was approved, Norton said the greenspace portion would cost about $2.5 million (the city also plans to build a $4 million parking deck nearby).
On Tuesday, however, city-hired engineers projected a budget of $5.7 million for the greenspace.
The $5.7 million budget was split into two categories. Site and roadway improvements, such as grading, drainage, utilities, roadwork and new traffic signals, are projected to cost $2.37 million. The park amenities being considered by the task force — hardscaping, landscaping, furnishings, structures, public art, wayfinding, water features and electrical components — are projected to cost $3.3 million. The estimates for each line item include 10% contingency estimates for unforeseen costs. The task force discussed economic effects of the pandemic, such as high labor costs and volatile construction material prices, as potential budget hiccups.
The downtown redesign project will be funded by revenue from a special 1% sales tax for projects that county voters approved last November, which will begin collection at the start of 2022.
Croy Engineering, one of the firms hired by the city to develop the concept, is conducting a traffic study to project the redesign’s impact. Croy President Greg Teague told the task force he hopes to have the study finished ahead of the council’s work session on Oct. 14.
The task force plans to meet again early next week to finalize recommendations to the City Council, Norton said, before the council votes on the updated concept.
Public inputAbout 100 people attended each open house session to give feedback on the concepts, according to Pond and Company. Another 200-300 people commented on the concepts online.
“So we feel this ... takes in a lot of feedback we heard from everybody,” said Andrew Kohr of Pond, adding the new concept is “a good, happy medium that accomplishes what we need to accomplish.”
The finer details of the concept will be decided by the task force, incorporating public input on specific details and budgetary concerns, Kohr added. At open houses, residents voted on their favorite design for different amenities such as architectural styles, shade structures, the water feature, seating and hardscaping materials.
Residents also gave input on their priorities for the space. Use as a concert venue, flexible lawn space and shade structures were the most popular amenities.
Of the two concepts presented to the public, Option 2 received more votes, Kohr said. But he attributed many of those votes to the fact that Option 1 included an unpopular “Instagrammable moment.” The idea was to build sculptural letters spelling out Smyrna, with the letter Y missing. A person would pose in the shape of the missing Y.
At an open house the MDJ covered, many of the notes left by residents called the idea tacky and trite.
“The biggest thing that people said, between the two options, they don’t like the letters,” Kohr said. He attributed this to a generational divide, saying older residents didn’t see the need for such a display.
Given the chance to vote for a public art concept, the most popular option was a painted mural.
After discussing public art features, the task force agreed that different options could be considered by the mayor, City Council and Smyrna Arts Council at later dates.
Details of the new concept such as the placement and type of water feature, as well as ongoing maintenance costs associated with it, were also discussed Tuesday. So too was the plan for King Street.
Councilman Austin Wagner suggested that the newly extended King Street be pedestrian-only, but others were concerned that this would overburden surrounding neighborhood streets and limit access. Removable, decorative bollards are part of the concept, so the street would be shut down from car traffic for festivals and other events.
Councilman Tim Gould agreed with Wagner on the goal of making the new downtown as pedestrian-friendly as possible, but said the city ought to wait and see how much King Street is used by cars before blocking it off permanently.
At another point, Gould suggested that the new concept was perhaps too busy.
“I always gravitate to less is more,” he said. “It’s hard to tell the perspective of how big that (area) is. You know, we have a lot in there. So I would gravitate toward less.”
Task force members briefly touched on the Smyrna residents who are opposed to the redesign. Some residents have pushed back against the redesign, criticizing certain aspects of the design, while others have said it was rushed or a waste of taxpayer money. Norton has maintained that the redesign is broadly popular, however.
Norton also seemed to speak to concerns that the redesign would eliminate existing trees when he said there will be a net gain in the number of trees and the amount of shade. The current concept calls for adding 23 new trees to the area.
Councilman Travis Lindley pointed out that plans to redesign the area date back to 2019, when a new downtown master plan was created with input from hundreds of residents.
“Just again, for the benefit of the room, that was with a prior government, a prior mayor, and a prior council that had four different members … And it began in 2019,” Lindley said. “I continue to hear that it’s a rushed process, but I think nothing that takes two years can be accurately claimed and stated as rushed.”
Andrea Worthy, the city’s economic development director, said the spirited public comments and media attention have attracted interest from businesses.
“Just overall, showing investment in the downtown and showing renewal, that creates, frankly, a destination that just is not (Smyrna) Market Village, but is right next to Market Village, and enhances what is there, I think is a very positive thing,” Worthy said.