Thursday night the Astoria Performing Arts Center was packed with people ready to hear about strategies for the revitalization of downtown Astoria. Civilis Consultant's Michele Reeves was commissioned by the Astoria Downtown Historic District Association to perform an analysis and make recommendations about some specific things the organization might do in what became known as the "Building Blocks" program.
The association also engaged the Oregon Main Street Program to survey the capacity of the downtown association to follow through on those ideas. ADHDA Business Development committee representative Susan Trabucco opened the presentation asking the questions "does downtown matter?" and "Just what makes a successful downtown?". She said that this includes economic prosperity for business and property owners but to achieve success downtown must also be a place where visitors and locals want to shop, eat, play, and visit. She said the social connections a successful downtown provides improves the entire community. She said everyone is a stakeholder in downtown for that reason.
Oregon Main Street program coordinator Sherri Stuart then offered her observations and while the feedback she got from merchants and user groups regarding the downtown association was very positive she detected a disconnection between the ADHDA and those she spoke with. She said that when stakeholders responded to questions about the job the association is doing they would always say "they" are doing a great job in different areas never taking personal ownership of the actions of the association or acknowledging any connection between themselves, their business, or their property and the ADHDA. She said that ADHDA has made tremendous progress in following the main street program and suggested that property owners should be strongly engaged on an on-going basis through the formation of a round-table that meets on a regular basis to stay connected to the process. Stewart also suggested that the ADHDA now consider hiring a paid Executive Director because she believes the organization has reached the point where they really need that key person to help moving forward. Up to this point the association has been depending on temporary staff to assist with communications and logistics.
The main event Thursday night was the presentation by Michele Reeves who began by relating some facts about why she believes concentrated, walkable downtown cores are the future. She pointed out that for the first time in history owning a car is no longer the most important thing for young people. This is because of how connected generation 'Y" is as opposed to the previous generation. This new generation of young people work, shop, socialize and get their entertainment on the Internet which has become more important to them than the car. She says young people are not driving in record numbers. She said another reason why walkable downtown cores become more attractive is because we really don't have money to build more roads and have difficulty paying for the upkeep on the roads we do have. Reeves says one outcome of these factors is that the higher valued properties have shifted to downtown cores. Reeves said Astoria is well positioned for all these trends
Reeves told the audience that she would be referring to the area as one "store" because she said that's really what a downtown is. She said Astoria's "front doors" are really important because what customers see in approaching your front doors and what they see along the way colors their interpretations of that store before they even get there. Reeves then showed a video of her drive into Astoria entrances on hwy 30 and then highway 101. As she did so she talked about how confusing the streets become, how long it takes to understand you have arrived in Astoria and how many points along the way exist where you have to make a decision about whether you will continue to downtown. She says she loves roundabouts ordinarily but in the case of the Astoria roundabout it's confusing, requires all a driver's attention to navigate and therefore that driver really doesn't notice anything around them until spilling onto Marine Drive at which time they are met with a long stretch of old gas stations, empty lots and very little that tells you there is a downtown core still several minutes away. She suggests "right-sizing" Marine drive from four lanes to three to allow for more space for bike lanes and pedestrian refuges. In the approach on Highway 30 she says in the two lane section approaching town it's nice with the views of the river and the vegetation along the way but as you get to the three lane section it begins to feel like a concrete jungle stretching out before you and she says as you get closer to town the landscape seems dominated by parking. The observer really has no idea they are approaching an iconic, historic downtown. This is made worse by the fact that as you drive along entering the actual downtown core on Marine you still have nothing to engage your interest on the street level and have no sense you have entered the downtown until you hit the first traffic signal. Reeves acknowledges that making changes to the state highway is not within Astoria's power but she says to make this downtown work better Commercial should be a two way and Marine Drive should be two way as well. She said it would take an effort to lobby ODOT but if several towns with a similar couplet were to band together perhaps it would make an impression on the state agency. She said that it doesn't make sense to have big trucks driving through Astoria's Historic downtown core.
Reeves strongly recommends converting as many downtown streets as possible from one way to two way streets. She says it's safer for pedestrians, easier to navigate for drivers and makes accessing stores simple. As it stands Reeves says the street grid is confusing and frustrates potential customers who want to drive directly to a store that interests them rather than trying to figure out how to navigate around several blocks to do the same thing.
Reeves is big on three-color paint jobs for any building and the use of artwork to add interest in a number of locations. She pointed out that Astoria's mono-color obsession with beige on most of the downtown buildings is a negative factor. An audience member pointed out that many building owners are not necessarily expert in picking color combinations that go together well and that's why neutrals end up all over town. Reeves said that this is something the downtown association should be helping those property owners to figure out but she stopped short of saying the city should adopt any special code requirements saying that sometimes trying to codify everything has unexpected outcomes. She said while it's true you would never end up with a purple building if you banned certain colors, it's also true you would be less likely to see more color downtown.
The final written report from Reeves is due on the 15th of April and she says it should be available on line shortly after that.