DDA presents concept designs for downtown outdoor hub

Published 6:00 am Saturday, July 2, 2022

NILES — The City of Niles continues to explore options for enhancing its downtown experience.

Those in attendance for Monday’s Committee of The Whole meeting were presented with a presentation of mock-up designs of outdoor hub layout options created by Minnesota-based economic development specialists Jay Schlinsog and Michael Schroeder.

The plan has been in development since before the Niles City Council voted in January to close the controversial Niles Outdoor Downtown Experience, a seating, gathering, and small events area centered in a portion of the 200 block of North 2nd Street. As part of that motion, the council accepted an offer from Michigan Main Street to provide technical assistance to conduct community surveys, identify viable locations for downtown public spaces and engage professional design services at no cost, with the goal of allowing the city to recreate a public space in downtown.

After surveying downtown Niles in May and talking with community members, Schlinsog and Schroeder came up with six possible locations for an outdoor hub before narrowing it down to options centered on and near Second Street. 

Second Street lot concepts

This concept exists in the lower level of the parking area between Second and Third Street. Parking would be eliminated at the east end to create a space that might accommodate 250 or more people comfortably in a range of seating conditions, including small tables, grass, communal tables, and ledge/wall seating. A staircase would link the lower level with a “balcony” on the upper-level parking area and a stage would provide a focus for performance activities. The space can be expanded for larger activities by temporarily closing more parking spaces. Food trucks can service the gathering space from the parking lot or from Sycamore.

Second Street concepts

An overhead gateway would identify the street as a special location in downtown Niles. The gateway would be lowered mechanically to close off the street to vehicular traffic at those times when the entire street becomes a place for an event or larger gathering. Street lights use “stage” lights to provide illumination and highlight activity focuses during events.

A realignment of the roadway and the elimination of parking would maintain two-way traffic on Second Street and create a larger plaza-like area for pedestrian movement, activities, and a series of gathering spaces at various sizes, with possibilities to span Second Street from Main to Sycamore, or from Cedar to Sycamore.

After receiving feedback from residents on Monday, the council will review and discuss the options before making a decision during a future meeting. 

“We’ve got to get something done,” said Council Member Jessica Nelson. “Every single person that stood up here said this is a requirement. We need this for our community and in this political environment, the more community we can build, the more bonds we can build just amongst all of us, the stronger we’re going to be to be able to weather this. I think we have to find a way to get something started ASAP.”

While Councilmember John DiCostanzo is not opposed to either concept, he wants the council to make the best decision possible for the community.

“We have to have enough consensus where it’s going to be that we don’t have a constant battle over a closed street,” he said. “I don’t have a dog in the hunt. If the downtown community decides they want to close Second Street or close another street, I’d be fine with it. I just don’t want the general fund paying for it. I may be in the minority here but I think (the NODE’s) main purpose is to attract people to downtown businesses. It’s an attraction for the taxpayers of the city of Niles as well.”

To Nelson, a key component of the NODE is its ability to foster community.

“What we clearly heard was that it brings community and so not everything has to be to feed business,” they said. “Yes, that’s nice but we’re having a community conversation about a splash pad, we’re having community conversations about other community type of places and just because this happens to be in the (Downtown Development Authority’s) realm, would we love it If they could pay for the whole thing and figure out what to do” 100 percent. But I’m not opposed to saying that we can repurpose general fund money to something that the community wants to see – that’s their money. They’re the ratepayers, they’re the taxpayers.

“If that’s something that they want, that happens to be downtown in any of these lovely locations, what would hold us back?”

For Mayor Nick Shelton, the biggest concern regarding the NODE’s replacement is cost.

“There are massive costs associated with a project like this,” he said. “I know in the past we’ve had some foundations that have considered contributing to this and residents have considered contributing to this project. I think it would be important for us to analyze the costs of both locations.”

Shelton believes that, if implemented, a new outdoor hub could be a space that both fosters community and generates business downtown.

“I agree that we need spaces for community but to me, the initial idea for this whole project started because we needed to drive people to downtown businesses. That’s why we did it in the first place and I think you can accomplish both. It can be a spot for our community where they can come downtown but also with the goal of bringing business downtown.”