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July 5, 2005 > Niles searches for a plaza with pizzazz

Niles searches for a plaza with pizzazz

The long wait for approval of conceptual plans and realization of a town plaza for Niles may be over soon. Council consideration and approval is expected July 12 when Luke Connolly, Redevelopment Project Manager for Niles will report the results of citizen comments and community consensus from a series of meetings held in Niles. TCV asked Luke about the process and the plan that has emerged from these meetings.

TCV: Is this design final or just one of a series moving toward a final design?

Connolly:: We are hoping this is final There have been a few changes from the previous design including moving the freight building to open views of the site. It does not have a foundation so we would need to build a foundation in any case. The cost of moving the building is probably not too great since we have estimates of moving the depot building to the plaza site at approximately $100,000.

The freight building will look like a working rail building. That is the goal. We will do what we need for ADA (American for Disabilities Act) and make sure it is structurally sound and satisfy basic needs. There may be lead paint issues as well. Currently the model railroad group is using the basement area. When they move to the plaza, they will be able to replace the loss of that space by using the freight building.

The goal for the depot is try to keep it as is. We have had a group taking care of it for 20 years. The present depot location on Mission Boulevard has a basement that will be filled in and graded. This project went to the Recreation Commission in April and June and so far, there is no answer about what to do with the acre and a half of parkland currently used for the depot.

The railcar near the depot, owned by the Tri-City Society of Model Engineers and the Niles Depot Historical Foundation, will be moved to the plaza and all that will remain will be the some tables, benches and the parking area.

TCV: There has been some discussion of the orientation of the depot building. Why face the building away from the rails? What happens if there is rail service to Niles in the future?

Connolly:: The building could still be used if there was passenger traffic from the rail line. There are doors in the back. The building will, however, mostly be a railroad museum. The community felt, overwhelmingly, that the colonnade should face Niles Boulevard and the amphitheater/stage area.

TCV: The railroad motif features the railcar and a pattern of tracks running through the plaza. Are these tracks raised or simply painted on cement?

Connolly:: They would be completely flat and allow truck access, if necessary, to the plaza. The rail line is envisioned as wood ties sunk in concrete and either metal or scored concrete to outline the tracks.

TCV: What types of activities will be held in the plaza?

Connolly:: The stage is small but can spill over to encompass a larger area. Small productions such as school plays and concerts can be held here. I was surprised by the choice of a small amphitheater. As someone relatively new to the area when this project began, I didn't realize how much Niles identified itself as a place for small events as well as commercial fairs. In the workshops it was clear that people also saw things of a more cultural nature.

TCV: How has the community responded to creating a plaza?

Connolly:: Very well. The last workshop, held June 23, was the smallest of all because, I am told, people are satisfied with the plan shown in November. We have had a high degree of consensus on this project. We have been hearing, 'go ahead and build it.' On some issues, such as relocating the depot and the amphitheater, there has been a 90-plus percent approval. I think many people feel the planning is done as long as it doesn't radically change. We wouldn't have had the last meeting at all except for the issue of talking with the tenants and the business owners about the freight building.

TCV: Have concerns been raised about undesirable elements taking control of the plaza?

Connolly:: It is of concern but I believe it will be used enough to discourage vagrancy. This was one reason for identifying tenants for the buildings. This plaza is 5 acres and the county owns 10 acres on the other side of the tracks. We have a huge amount of property that is screened from view and it is best to have occupied buildings with activity in the area.

Some elements of the plaza such as a water feature were pulled from the plan due to concerns of attracting people who will deter residents from using the plaza. We can probably design something that will avoid this problem, but at this time, such elements were dropped from consideration. We will have to see what happens. The only real test will be when it is built and people begin to use the plaza.

TCV: Is funding available for the plaza? Will it be built?

Connolly:: We go to council on July 12th. Right now, there is enough money in redevelopment to build everything but not do anything with the buildings. We might have a little bit left to make one of the buildings presentable, such as the freight building. In order to make both buildings safe and able to be occupied, we will need to appropriate more money.

Early last year, when the project was reactivated after being on hold for some time, we looked at the plaza alone. We estimated $2 million and that seemed to be a good guess. The inclusion of the buildings changes the picture. On July 12, we will ask for an additional $1 million for the buildings. The plaza and site work is currently estimated at $2 1/2 million and we have $2.95 million allocated.

When I first started on this project, I had no idea what the community's reaction would be. I thought they might want to demolish the freight building. Having done this type of redevelopment in other communities, the response from Niles residents and business owners was a lot better. They have thought about this for a long time. Most disagreements on the plaza have been on details rather than the overall design or need for a plaza.

There would be no meaningful purpose served by continuing the public process. We started last August and now, eleven months later, we will ask council for approval. There have been a lot of meetings and we have gone to the Recreation Commission twice.

TCV: How will plaza maintenance be handled?

Connolly:: Redevelopment cannot fund ongoing maintenance. This is not a park so it does not fall into park maintenance. We will have to form a maintenance district. Currently there is a maintenance district for the parking lots so something similar will have to be done for the plaza. I would guess we will have a vote on this in early '06. We have talked with the business owners about this. It is an art and science to determine who gets the benefit from the plaza and who should be included in the maintenance district.

TCV: Can the maintenance district overlay another district?

Connolly:: It can overlay another district. There is interest in a Property Based Improvement District (PBID) in Niles but with a limited number of commercial properties, and that is all that would be included, it would be tough to make it happen. A PBID can assess for other things such as events and marketing but can only include commercially zoned properties. We will have to look at something like a landscape or lighting district - something more traditional. Maybe 5 years down the line, we might do another overlay.

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