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Market Square May Get Whole New Look

A rendering of the changes that may be coming to downtown.

by Valerie Garner

The main portion of Market Square has been dubbed “Roanoke’s Living Room” and has functioned as such since Roanoke’s existence. “The nature of our commerce has changed,” said Sean Luther, Downtown Roanoke Inc. CEO.

The two squares adjacent to Center in the Square and 202 Market accommodate 24 on-street parking spaces. Luther wants to see a more pedestrian focus. It would eliminate the 24 parking spaces that would be replaced with pavers, trees and stalls.

Luther was selling the idea to city council and hopes to get funding for the project estimated to be $250,000. “This is the center of our downtown,” he said. “It’s a traffic engineering negative” for parking and maneuverability.

Lucas Thorton with Hist: Re Partners LLC gave a presentation to the DRI board and Luther said that they were very impressed with the concept. Joyce Waugh with the Roanoke Valley Chamber of Commerce represented the business community and told council that, “The board had not yet taken a positive position on the project but are impressed with the innovative approach.”

“How do we activate the square,” asked Luther rhetorically. The square will be a priority for pedestrians rather than for cars, he said. The project will connect Center in the Square with the Market Building and Elmwood Park.

It may not be exactly  the final result but “it’s the beginning of a conversation,” said Luther. The plan is to create “super stalls” for farm vendors that will provide a larger selling area. Access to their vehicles will not change. A tree canopy would be integrated into the pavers and there would be no curb.

Luther also said that the project offers a much needed opportunity to manage downtown storm water. There are also major utility challenges yet to be resolved. Once completed there is a question as to who would be responsible for the cost of upkeep – DRI, Parks and Recreation or the private surrounding businesses.

Farmers have the same concerns they did with previous plans. How do the farmers get to their customers who drive down and stop to grab a bag of produce? More study on traffic patterns and parking will need to take place. A challenge will be to incentivize people to use the parking garages.

Employees take up many of the on-street parking places during the day, said Luther. Customers need those parking spaces. This all needs a larger conversation he said, as he pointed to a map of all the garages and surface lots that provide parking for an estimated 4500 vehicles. “There needs to be a system that recognizes short term versus long term parking.”

“I believe very strongly that our downtown is a central component of the region’s economic strategy,” said Luther. “Improvement of the experience is ongoing.” he said.  Luther pointed to Vinton and Blacksburg streetscape projects in progress. “I would propose that our sidewalks, our street trees and our square is not up to snuff with what’s happening in downtown,” said Luther.

Given Center in the Square reopening in May of 2013 and with half the square currently closed, the project could start the first phase in September. The second phase would transform the other square with final completion by the 2013 St. Patrick’s Day parade. Thornton called downtown “a progressive private community and that momentum is fragile – we need to help encourage it.”

Councilman Ray Ferris called the design “a good compromise” to avoiding complete closure of the street. “Roanokers abhor parking garages,” he said. He asked them to anticipate what answer they will give to citizens who complain about the elimination of the parking spaces.

Thornton said he believes those that use downtown are not concerned and the perception of a lack of downtown parking is only a concern to infrequent visitors. He emphasized the awkwardness of the square parking spaces with some of the spaces reserved for market vendors anyway.

Councilman Court Rosen thought the $250,000 estimate was a reasonable investment. “We are in the next evolution of the square.” He encouraged moving forward with the concept as it coincides with the Elmwood Park and Center in the Square projects.

City Manager Chris Morrill said the city has several million dollars in the “economic development reserve” to cover the cost. There is also the capital contingency fund or it is even possible there will be excess funds at year end, he said.

A formal coalition of businesses and private property owners will be back with more specifics. Luther is looking for buy-in from council and city administration. Morrill said traffic engineers, civil engineers and parks and recreation, as well as public arts folks have already embraced it. “All the players are already on board.”

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