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COUNCIL APPROVES DOWNTOWN MAKEOVER

Posted 8/20/13

 

The goal: Finish it by next summer

When a consultant first presented preliminary plans in December to revitalize Middletown’s downtown, borough manager Tim Konek said, “Things are going to happen quickly.” He wasn’t …

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COUNCIL APPROVES DOWNTOWN MAKEOVER

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That includes an ambitious underground portion of the project that includes fixing the downtown’s water and sewer infrastructure and moving power lines underground, all of which would be completed before the above-ground portion of the project begins.

Council approved the project by a 7-1 vote during a meeting that followed on Monday – and gave the responsibilities for funding and managing it to the borough’s Industrial and Commercial Development Authority. The ICDA, which was created by council last year, is a politically independent body that can utilize funding mechanisms councils are prohibited from using to support economic development projects.

Several elements of the revitalization plan, created by consultant Dan Anderton of the consulting firm Dewberry, were changed and refined after meeting with a committee of downtown business owners – although the plan, which focuses on South Union Street from Emaus to Ann streets, is no less ambitious than the preliminary proposal.

The plan places a particular focus on turning the intersection of Emaus and Union streets into a highly-stylized town square plaza.

Right now, “There is no ‘there’ there,” Anderton said. “The only town square for Middletown is at Main and Union [streets]. We wanted to see if we could bring it downtown [to Emaus and Union streets] where it would start to take on that character and purpose.”

The “urban square” would include a road surface of concrete pavers and an area of trees at each of the square’s four corners. A system of Victorian trellises on each corner of the north side of the intersection would act a gateway separating the residential district from downtown.

The new square’s northeast corner would include a pavilion that could be used for everything from musical programs to farmers’ markets. That pavilion, however, would displace three current businesses – a Laundromat, the Fearless Dragons martial arts school and End of the Trail tattoo parlor – which prompted a sharp exchange between resident Mike Dalton and Councilor Robert Louer.

Louer said the businesses will have the ability to relocate, possibly to other downtown locations. “That’s going to be open to their decision as to where they want to go,” he said.

Dalton retorted, “They have the right to relocate, that’s correct, but they have the right to relocate out of this town.”

Louer said people should not focus on “what ifs,” and said he supports the plan.

“We’re going to go work on this plan, and if we can make it come about, we’ll make it come about,” he said.

The plan would also revamp the sidewalks with a five-foot pedestrian walkway and a five-foot, six-inch “safety zone” between the sidewalk and roadway where trash cans and benches would be placed.

The borough would plant new honey locust and sycamore trees as downtown shade trees, which, although they would take a long time to mature, would eventually reach above the building canopies, Anderton said.



One element of the plan that remained unchanged from the original conceptual design was the proposal to demolish the currently unused Klahr jewelry building to open up a pedestrian alley between borough parking and downtown businesses, where café-style seating could be placed.

Robin Pellegrini, owner of Alfred’s Victorian restaurant and head of the downtown business owners committee, urged council to support the plan.

“It was a lot of volunteer hours and a lot of dedicated people that were involved,” she said. “In the end, we worked out something that felt good to all of us, and something that is good for the downtown and will help it go. So I can’t urge you enough to go forward with this.”

Councilor Barbara Arnold also expressed optimism about the plan.

“I’m excited about it,” Arnold said. “I think it’s going to be great.”

Councilor Scott Sites, however, voted against the motion to proceed with the plan, saying he hadn’t had enough time to consider it – and even if he had, he was not sure he would have supported it.

“I’m not really sure I like the design,” Sites said. For instance, the plans include placing benches downtown – and when benches were placed downtown in the past, residents complained that they attracted loiterers, he said.

Most residents in attendance seemed generally supportive of the plan’s concepts, but several questioned how the borough would get the money to complete the project.

“This is going to cost a lot of money,” said resident Rachelle Reid, a candidate for council in November’s general election. “This is not going to be cheap.”

Council President Christopher McNamara said the borough is seeking Dauphin County gaming grant funds and a County Infrastructure Bank loan to help pay for the project.  Beyond that, it will be up to the borough’s ICDA to find a way to fund the project without creating a negative impact on taxpayers, he said.

“They’ll have the borrowing capacity to get the job done, and they’ll have to find a revenue source,” he said.  
Pellegrini said she is “pretty confident” that the borough will be able to fund the project without an effect on taxpayers.

“We kept the cost down,” she said. “We had a budget in mind.”

Anderton said he has a basic idea of what the above-ground part of the project will cost, but won’t state the cost publicly until estimates are finalized. Borough engineer Herbert, Rowland and Grubic has estimated the cost of the underground portion of the project at $1.6 million.

The borough hopes to receive necessary clearances to work on Union Street from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation by the end of the year, and hopes to undertake the underground part of the project next spring, Anderton said.

The borough then hopes to complete the above-ground improvements next summer, he said, although he emphasized that the summer completion date is a goal, not a guarantee.

Even if the project is completed next summer, plans to improve Middletown will not come to an end. Business leaders and the ICDA likely will continue to work on further development ideas, McNamara said.

Anderson said the plan’s design could ultimately extend beyond the Emaus-to-Ann-streets corridor. He hopes the general pattern of the downtown makeover can be used as a prototype for future improvements to other borough streets.

“It’s not just a one-shot deal,” Anderton said. “As the downtown revitalization starts to expand, the design expands with it.” {jcomments on}

Daniel Walmer: 717-944-4628, or danielwalmer@pressandjournal.com