Downtown Culver revitalization meeting includes heated parking debate

Many merchants and other occupying entities of Culver's downtown area seemed generally pleased with a special recent meeting to discuss a major revitalization project there, but the March 8 meeting was not without controversy.

Representatives of entities on the two blocks of Main Street making up the primary business district gathered at the town hall for an update on a project whose funding was secured late in 2010 through the Indiana Department of Transportation. According to Lori Johnson and Qasim Asghar, representatives of the DLZ engineering firm contracted that year to design the project, work will include sidewalk enhancements -- making the blocks in question, between Washington and Madison Streets, Americans with Disabilities Act compliant -- new lighting, "bump-outs" at crossings for pedestrians, and other changes. Electrical outlets will be made available at every tree and light-post as well.

Sometimes heated debate, however, centered on the issue of parking, with several business owners suggesting a shift away from parallel, and towards angle parking should have been considered.
Asghar noted no parking spaces would be lost with the present design, and explained sidewalks will be seven to eight feet in width, similar to their present size.

Sue McInturff of the Diva gift shop suggested narrower sidewalks could accommodate increased parking, and Susie Mahler of Cafe Max, who said she had researched the matter online, emphasized six-foot sidewalks would allow for angle parking.

"In my experience," Johnson responded, "when you start narrowing the sidewalks, five to six feet is not a comfortable width in a downtown area where you have commercial traffic. Most places are expanding width, not narrowing."

Tammy Pesek of the Corndance Cafe said she agreed, but Culver's small population offsets that concern.

"All my customers drive (to the restaurant)," she said. "And all my customers complain about parallel parking."

Pesek also noted Culver has a higher age range population and said there's very little public parking overall in the downtown area.
Town council member Ed Pinder noted placement of tables and chairs on downtown sidewalks -- which had been requested by several businesses in recent years and ratified by council ordinance last year -- would be impossible if sidewalks were narrowed. Mahler said she would "throw them (outdoor tables and chairs) away for angle parking."

Council president Sally Ricciardi pointed out five-foot sidewalk width is "the same width as your standard sidewalk throughout town. One person can pass another, but if two people are walking together and a third person has to pass another, they have to move. People will smash into a building or on the curb."

"I'd prefer to have room for people to walk safely down our commercial streets," said Kathy Clark of the Lake Maxinkuckee Environmental Council.

Some debate centered on just how much space would actually be required per angle parking spot and how many parking spaces would be gained or lost by way of either proposed parking solution. Asghar said implementation of angle parking would only gain the downtown two parking spots, though Mahler argued a higher number. There was some disagreement as to just how many feet of leeway would be needed per spot in angle parking.

Asghar and Johnson said the design would have to be started over from scratch and an environmental impact study newly conducted, if parallel parking were replaced with angle.

Council member Ginny Munroe suggested the greater need the discussion identified was for a parking area accessible to the downtown.
"If we have to pay $30,000 for a redesign," she said, "I'd rather use that money for parking for the downtown."

Kathy Berindei of JMC Engineers suggested the town-owned parking lot just south of CVS Pharmacy on Ohio Street could be paved and graded as downtown parking, though it was argued on a busy weekend the lot is filled with vehicles of employees working at the downtown businesses.
Pesek said the discussion focused disproportionately on the busiest weeks of the year, which tend to be fair weather periods when customers will walk to businesses.

"I'd like to see more business (the rest of the year by providing more parking)," she said.

Pinder said Culver's downtown has "always had a parking problem and always will."

Chad Van Herk of First Farmers Bank noted trees are "part of the beautification" and would have to be eliminated from the plan if sidewalks are narrowed.

"I like the idea of angle parking," he added. "I don't see 18 spaces per side (as some suggested was possible). But the lack of sidewalk will make it less attractive to walk on, and you lose trees."

Mahler asked council members why downtown merchants weren't contacted before planning was completed, for input on the design.

"I thought we had an input," Mahler said. "This is really just an informational meeting telling us what has been done. Say it for what it is."

Ricciardi said angle parking had been set aside by the council earlier in the process, given the narrowing of sidewalks. She added that restaurants will still hold more people than downtown parking can handle, regardless of which estimation as to the number of parking spots is used. Utilities manager Bob Porter also said he doubted the narrowing of sidewalks would pass the federally-mandated requirements as to the historical nature of the downtown, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In other discussion, Asghar explained the construction process should take about two months, and Johnson said the process could be broken into stages to minimize impact on businesses and avoid busiest customer periods. Some business owners discussed whether spring or fall construction would be better.

Also discussed was the possibility of a large outdoor clock placed on the "bump-out" nearest Heritage Park. A podium or sign explaining the historical significance of the downtown will need to be placed nearby, it was noted.