Halff Associates Vice President Wayne Cooper presents San Marcos downtown streetscape concepts developed by his firm. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
No one knows when the city’s downtown master plan will become reality, but a drainage project for parts of LBJ Drive, Hutchison Street and University Drive will force a sneak peak at the next iteration of downtown San Marcos.
City officials and representatives of consulting firm Halff Associates were at the San Marcos Activity Center Monday night to conduct a public information session and administer a survey regarding the proposed streetscape improvements. The enhanced streetscape features proposed for the four-block expanse would be executed in accordance with the general provisions of the downtown master plan and implemented concurrently with the Hutchison Street Drainage Project.
“There’s no way that these business owners are going to put up with you tearing up the street for 12 months, fixing the drainage, and then coming back in another year or two and saying, ‘Hey, I want to do your sidewalks,'” said Steven Guajardo, contract project manager for the Hutchison Street Drainage Project. “If I was a business owner, I would say ‘Get out of here, man. You were here for 12 months, you should have done that here the first time. We knew that we were going to go out with that drainage project.’ So we took a step back and said, ‘We’re going to tear all this stuff up, so let’s only tear it up one time and make it right.'”
The Hutchison Street Drainage Project, unlike the proposed streetscape improvements, already has been funded, courtesy of city voters in a November 2005 bond election. Once Halff Associates submits the results of its two-way traffic conversion and electrical underground conversion studies (the latter of which should be done within a week) to the city council, councilmembers will decide whether and what aspects of Halff and Associates’ recommendations and proposed streetscape concepts will be implemented.
Wayne Cooper of Halff Associates presented two streetscape concepts, both of which call for wider sidewalks, more trees, fewer parking spaces, specialty crosswalk paving, and new trashcans, benches, and more pedestrian-friendly light poles on a contiguous stretch of road including Hutchison Street between C.M. Allen Parkway and North LBJ Drive, LBJ Drive between University Drive and Hutchison Street, and University Drive between North LBJ Drive and North Guadalupe Street. Assuming the city council funds it, construction of the streetscape improvements may be complete within 18 months.
“We have crumbling infrastructure downtown,” said San Marcos City Councilmember John Thomaides at Monday’s public meeting. “It’s a disgrace in many ways. It’s no wonder that it’s hard for many people to do business down there. When you put this kind of investment into your downtown, you create a business climate. The old saying is true: if you build it, they will come. If you build an eight-foot sidewalk, you will fill it with people.”
Councilmembers Kim Porterfield, Fred Terry and Gaylord Bose also attended the meeting. Mayor Susan Narvaiz made a brief appearance.
Streetscape Concept 1 entails 60 degree angled parking on the north side of Hutchison Street and the east side of North LBJ Drive, and parallel parking on the south side of Hutchison and west side of North LBJ. Concept 1 entails eight- to 10-foot-wide sidewalks, trees planted against curbs, and a gateway feature marking the beginning of Hutchison Street at C.M. Allen Parkway.
Concept 1 does not specify the precise nature of the gateway feature, but Cooper proposed possibilities such as raised medians, special crosswalk paving, and an arch over the mouth of Hutchison to signify the beginning of a new city region. Concept 1 entails a reduction in available parking of about 12 spaces.
Streetscape Concept 2 calls for parallel parking only, trees planted in the middle of sidewalks, and no gateway feature at the intersection of Hutchison and C.M. Allen.
The sidewalks according to this concept would be about seven feet wide on either side of the central tree trunks, allowing for some separation between storefront activity along the inner sidewalk and pedestrians nearest to the road. Concept 2 entails a reduction in available parking of about 18 spaces.
Both concepts entail trees or enclosed plant beds that extend into the street at crosswalk points, to allow for less cross-street walking distances. Neither concept includes bike lanes. Cooper said his firm’s traffic engineer concluded that the traffic on Hutchison Street and the immediate area is slow enough that bicycles and cars can safely operate in the same lanes along the proposed stretch of streetscape improvements.
Thomaides noted that cyclists – such as himself – often ride on Hutchison Street to avoid Hopkins Street, which is narrower and busier. Neither street currently has bike lanes. Bicycle riding is prohibited on downtown sidewalks by city ordinance.
Terry said he prefers Concept 1 because it offers both types of parking.
“Something in the Downtown Master Plan that I’m real excited about is to get some way-finding,” Terry said. “Because people will get off the freeway and get lost.”
Thomaides said he prefers a combination of elements specified in Concepts 1 and 2, such as a mixture of angled and parallel parking tailored to each street.
The species of trees and shrubbery to be planted during the proposed streetscape renovation have not been selected. Cooper warned against using native species, which, though drought-tolerant, may not be adapted to the lighting and temperatures that prevail downtown. To allow for the planting of taller trees, and for other aesthetic reasons, Cooper said the city is assessing the feasibility of moving the power lines along the proposed streetscape improvement area underground.
Concept 1 and Concept 2 stipulate North LBJ Drive and North Guadalupe Street as two-way streets. Each is presently one-way. Cooper said two-way streets allow for more efficient traffic circulation and slower traffic movement. According to both concepts, LBJ Drive would consist of three lanes, the center-most of which would be a two-way left turn lane.
City of San Marcos Capital Improvements Department Director David Healey said the city will install infrastructure to enable LBJ Drive to become a two-way street. However, Healey said the city will not make the street two-way before receiving the consent of the majority of city residents and owners and renters of buildings along the street, and not before obtaining input from Texas State University and conducting traffic studies.
Halff Associates Downtown Streetscape Senior Study Project Manager Mary Mazzei said her firm was paid about $56,000 to develop the conceptual designs. Infrastructure construction firm HNTB will carry out the drainage improvements to Hutchison Street, and will perform the additional streetscape work should the council decide to fund it. Thomaides said the city has not yet been given a price tag for the proposed streetscape work.
“We haven’t been shown that,” said Thomaides. “But I think, hopefully, it will be within our reach. I think it will be.”
Thomaides said he is in favor of extending the scope of the proposed streetscape work. Assistant City Manager Laurie Moyer, in response to a question posed during the meeting by Thomaides, said it would be cheaper to extend the scope of the streetscape project now rather than conduct the work in future projects. Guajardo and Thomaides said the current economic climate makes for “hungry contractors,” and, therefore, a buyers market at this moment.
“I’d like to, while we’re there, add at least the leg between Hutchison and Hopkins Street on LBJ,” Thomaides said. “You have some of oldest iconic businesses in San Marcos – Paper Bear, you have Root Cellar. You have the Hair Company that’s been there for 30 years. We need to add that section and do that at the same time.”
Thomaides noted that undertaking the streetscape improvements, and thereby initiating the implementation of the downtown master plan, falls in line with the recently-released recommendations contained in the draft version of the Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS), a regional plan slated for unveiling in the spring by Economic Development San Marcos. The plan recommends that cities in the Greater San Marcos Area “Preserve and enhance characteristics that will make these areas special and representative of the community’s history,” and “Encourage mixed-use, pedestrian friendly Downtowns.”
The city paid Market Street Services, Inc., $173,298.21 for its work in developing CEDS. The draft version of CEDS recommends that cities in the Greater San Marcos Area adopt the goal of “downtown development,” and undertake four actions to achieve it, namely; “Prioritize the continued improvement of Greater San Marcos’ historic Downtowns,” “Improve and effectively market the visitor experience to the area’s historic Downtowns,” “Provide improved amenities for residents of Downtown areas,” and “Fund and champion beautification initiatives.”