Niles discusses closing downtown street for outdoor hub

Published 9:25 am Thursday, March 28, 2024

NILES — Niles’ pursuit of an outdoor hub was the hot topic at Monday’s Committee of The Whole meeting.

City officials, designers, business owners and community members in attendance for Monday’s meeting were presented with a presentation of layout options for Niles’ proposed outdoor hub space “The Forge” by Suzannah Deneau of architecture, design, and survey consulting firm Wightman.

The Niles Downtown Development Authority Board recently moved to recommend to the Niles City Council that it approve a new design option for its outdoor hub space “the Forge,” previously known as the NODE, a design that would scale back from the original design approved in September 2022 due to rising construction costs and would involve the closure of North 2nd Street between Main Street and the north alley.

While the project has been approved by council, its redesign is being brought before council because it calls for the closure of Second Street between East Main and the north alley. After reviewing the information and receiving feedback from residents on Monday, the council will review and discuss the options before making a decision on whether or not to close the road at a future meeting. 

In September 2022, council voted to dedicate approximately 44 feet of the approximate 66 feet right-of-way on Second Street between Main Street and the north alley for improvement as an outdoor space to further economic development in downtown Niles.  The move dedicated the area of Second Street between Main Street and the north alley for the creation of outdoor public space while maintaining two lanes of traffic unless the Council approves an event application that authorizes the closure of the roadway.

The new proposal approved by the DDA calls for the closure of 2nd Street between East Main and the north alley. The plan would call for curbs to be installed that would run east-west at the north and south ends of The Forge. 

The existing roadway would be milled out and pulverized to be used as a base before asphalt is paved between the existing curb lines. Features would include a fireplace, overhead lighting and a stage area for performances, which would be moved from the existing sidewalk and into the street. The street would be designed as an inverted crown, allowing water to flow toward the center of the street into a drain.

The Main Street Board met for a special meeting on Friday, March 22 to discuss the new options for the planned outdoor gathering area downtown and to hear the voices of business owners, members of the public, city staff and council members. After weighing three options, the board voted unanimously to adopt option two, which calls for the closure of 2nd Street. Option one called for following the plan of the original bid sans the streetscape features and option three called for the elimination of additional parking along Second Street.

The estimated cost of option two is $652,280 compared to $1.1 million for the original project. Option one costs $807,423.63 and option three $728,000.

“In light of the recent estimates, this project has already been approved both officially by this council and by the community at large,” wrote Main Street DDA in a statement. “This is simply an adjustment required by the unusual economic times we’re living in so that we can complete the work in a fiscally responsible manner. Option two enables us to meet the spirit of the project as envisioned while keeping it affordable as well as allowing us space for future adjustments. It gives us the biggest bang for our buck.”

The project is funded by a $325,000 RAP grant, a $325,000 match from the city via ARPA funds, a $25,000 vibrancy grant and $10,000 donation from local foundations. According to Main Street DDA Director Lisa Croteau, the decision requires a swift response from council because it needs to go out for bid by July in order to retain its RAP grant funding. If the council votes against closing the road, the DDA board would pursue one of the remaining options.

Croteau said the project is supported by many businesses in the area and that accommodations are being discussed regarding supply pick-ups and drop-offs as well as loading and unloading at Four Flags Antiques.

“(Four Flags Antiques’) major concern was parking and we had the discussion and talked with (Public Works Director Joe Ray) today to see if we could potentially put signs up for 20-minute loading,” she said. “Especially because their customers need a place to come and go and at 2nd & Main, there will be people that order lunch and just need a place to park my car for five minutes while they run in and grab it. Joe didn’t feel that there would be much difficulty in getting that done.”

Extensive planning

The plan has been in development since before the Niles City Council voted in January 2022 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.

The DDA has expressed its desire to pursue a Second Street location for the outdoor hub due a number of factors, including:

  • Central location
  • Visibility from road, businesses and residents
  • Availability of utilities
  • Close to public restrooms
  • Proximity to ample parking in city owned lots
  • Only takes seven parking spots
  • Flat ground to all amenities

Community, council members weigh in

Community members, business owners and council members weighed in on the proposal. The majority of those who spoke out were in favor of the change but expressed concerns regarding safety and its routine maintenance, with others believing that closing the road could have a negative impact on businesses and traffic flow.

For Main Street DDA Vice President Jessica Nelson, a key component of The Forge is its ability to foster community.

“I think this area is so important to Niles and if we lose the opportunity to have money that we’ve already gotten approved for it to not go forward with this space or if we undermine our own decisions, I think we miss out on a huge thing for this community,” Nelson said. “It is truly a space that allows people from all walks of life to gather together. I know we have beautiful parks in Niles, but to have a space in the downtown area makes a huge difference. It’s close to businesses, it’s in the heart of the community. I’ve traveled all around the country and the world and this is such a normal thing. People close roads all the time to have these kinds of spaces to foster community in the heart of the city. 

“I really hope that we can find a solution that allows us to have this space so that we can continue to grow our community to have events where we raise money to take care of each other and achieve all the goals that we all have together as this community of Niles.”

River Essence Group President Vikki Jurgonski believes in the concept of The Forge but expressed that there needs to be a maintenance plan in place in order for it to work.

I can get behind this project,” she said. “The thought of it is very exciting and I like pretty things so this all makes sense to me but what I would like you all to look at before this goes into place is what is the plan for the maintenance of it? This is an outdoor space and just like an indoor or outdoor spaces an event space that it’s a business so it needs to be run like that. I’ve heard ‘we’ll let volunteers do the work in there’ but that doesn’t work. There needs to be a plan in place for exactly how that’s going to work.”

Daniel Ashley, owner of Ultra Camp, 123 E. Main St., expressed his overall support of the road closure but expressed his desire to see the design match the city’s aesthetic and that measures be put in place to ensure safety of pedestrians and motorists downtown.

2nd & Main owners Dustin Jankoviak, Lea Germann and Alicia Ransbottom were present at the meeting, with Jankoviak voicing the business’ support of the project on behalf of the group.

“To me, The Forge is Really important thing for our community and we’re in favor of it,” he said. “I think one of the biggest things that we’ve talked about is just having proper maintenance planning on how we’re going to take care of it. I like the progress that we’ve pushed forward with the whole plan.

Jankoviak said that he does not believe closing the road would negatively affect his business and believes it could help other businesses find success.

“I think this is a great next step for the utilization of a best space in the community and I’m excited to see where it goes, he said. “Outside of the maintenance plan, there’s not a lot of concern and I think it will do a lot of good for the rest of the community.”

Council members John DiCostanzo and Michael Thompson spoke out against the proposal to close the road, with DiCostanzo saying it goes against the initial agreement. Thompson questioned whether the city’s $325,000 was the best use of funds.

“I wouldn’t support the road closure because that goes against what we originally approved and the money that we originally approved,” DiCostanzo said. “It’s the business of the DDA and I think they should honor the support council offered based on a plan that left the road open.”

Council member Gretchen Bertschy spoke in favor of the road closure, citing safety as the key reason.

“I prefer the road to be closed because I find that safer for those who wish to be seated,” she said. “I’ve been in other communities where there was outdoor public space available for those who wish to sit or maybe stroll and I found myself very anxious when these spaces were next to moving traffic. I am actually happier that this choice closes the road. … I prefer it from a safety point of view and I think we would be safer as folks come in to our community and want to sit outside and enjoy it.”

While council member Tim Rogers is not a fan of the road being shut down, he believes it is the safest option in order to pursue the project.

“I’m a parade participant here in Niles and that’s where we start the parades,” he said. “I use that little piece of road out across Grant Street going across town on a regular basis. That said, I cannot see a way that we’re not going to get people hurt by leaving that roadway open in any way, shape, or form. People are just too busy with their lives when they’re driving and they’re going to drive where they’re going to drive. If we close it we’re going to have at least six months of people who have driven on that road for years trying to get through barricades. … Putting up a barricade in the road is the safest thing if we’re going to have that kind of event area with people on the ground.”

While he does have concerns regarding street closure and programming, Shelton believes that, if implemented correctly, a new outdoor hub could be a space that both fosters community and generates business downtown.

“I don’t take road closure lightly,” said Niles Mayor Nick Shelton. “It wouldn’t be my first choice and I don’t know that the option one that we went out for bid on would be my first choice but I do think it falls within budget, it does get the best bang for our buck and It’s the safest option.

“Anecdotally, I spent more time downtown and I spent more dollars downtown when that space was there and I’m somebody who regularly goes downtown,” he added. “I do have concerns about a street closure should this fail? I’m concerned that it was spent for not. Do I think it will fail? No. I have concerns about programming and that’s the skin that these businesses have in the game is that if they want to have some benefit, they’re going to have to help program it and I trust our businesses to do that.”

Shelton also expressed concern about maintenance and upkeep and said the DDA would pursue avenues to make sure it is funded. Croteau estimated it would cost approximately $10,000 per year to maintain the Forge.

“I would love to see sponsorships to create an endowment to do such a thing,” he said. “I think $10,000 a year is about a $200,000 lump check into an endowment fund. Can we raise $200,000? I hope so. If the DDA can, we have the funds to budget $10,000 a year to do that. Is that the best use of money? I don’t know.”

Shelton said his biggest concern is pushback from the community, calling it the most contentious issue the city has faced in his eight years as mayor. He urged the council to keep an open mind when evaluating the proposal.

“This was a space that brought a lot of joy to our community in the time that it was there and and I’m the first to admit, it didn’t look beautiful and it still accomplished a goal,” he said. “We have a real chance to do something really neat in our community that will bring more people here. Why not take that chance? But let’s do it the right way. I voted with the DDA board and as everybody said, it was unanimous to recommend closure of the street and I’m hopeful that this council considers all the options, goes out and speaks to the constituents again and makes an informed decision of what we should do. I don’t want anybody to take it lightly because the street closure is not something that can be taken lightly. But if we don’t do something, we are leaving funding on the table and I don’t want to do that.

“Look at the history, talk to people, be open-minded and think about what’s best for all of our community but also know that this is a project to bring people specifically to our downtown district, just as repaving South 11th Street will bring more people to the businesses on South 11th Street.”