Businesses need to buy into Carson Street plan

A rendering of the purposed changes to Carson Street.

A rendering of the purposed changes to Carson Street.

With downtown streetscape changes a hot topic, discussions regarding business buy-in will heighten as the Carson Street plan moves from a conceptual plan toward a detailed design.

Preliminary contacts with some business and properly owners, already under way, have Community Development Director Lee Plemel saying those early stage discussions don’t dash cold water on prospects for business backing and cooperation on post-project maintenance. Questions, however, remain regarding whether enough private sector support steps up and how robust it will be.

“In concept, yes, there is buy-in from some,” Plemel said. But he said businessmen and women await the detail stage because they want to know costs. He said, for example, they will want to know if participation in a maintenance district is going to cost, say, $50 over some time frame or 10 times as much. Figures are just speculative because detailed costs await nuts-and-bolts decisions about downtown street changes, he said.

But the Board of Supervisors likely will want tangible evidence property owners and businesses are committed, and one member is on record repeatedly as saying it’s necessary to avoid a reversal of his support.

“On the BIDs (business improvement districts),” said Supervisor Brad Bonkowski, “I have been clear from the first day that the corridor improvements must be done in partnership with the property owners and business owners.” City investment in upgrades can’t be justified, he said, unless the owners also are funding maintenance, contributing trash receptacles, benches and the like, as well as jointly creating events and advertising them.

A business improvement district, which Plemel said is known in state law as a commercial area vitalization district, can be formed voluntarily by all or, as Plemel put it in general terms, by “a majority of the property owners.”

Bonkowski even mentioned commercial building facade improvements while talking of the private sector role, but sounded wary about there being ways to mandate such action. He talked of it in the context of the partnership he envisions, lumping it with the private sector involvement in joint advertising and event creation.

Among the reasons for doing downtown streetscape changes cited by supporters is encouraging an increase in foot traffic, stimulating activity by slowing vehicle traffic via three vehicle lanes, bicycle paths, wider sidewalks and outdoor opportunities. Those opportunities would help restaurants, bars and other outlets desiring a sidewalk presence to lure customers, according to advocates, who also see upgrades eventually driving property values higher.

Paul Esswein, a professional planner working in a neighboring county, lives here and is on Carson City’s volunteer Planning Commission. He recently analyzed some downtown and commercial corridor property values. He found the Carson Street core had the highest square foot net values, which Bonkowski said after checking the samples reflects what he would expect from a bird’s-eye view.

“I see what I expect from 30,000 feet,” the supervisor said, “which is downtown is valued the highest, north Carson (Street) the lowest and south Carson in between.”

Esswein, who supports the new downtown street design, and Bonkowski said they don’t conclude much else from the figures. Esswein, however, said leveraging downtown property values can trigger additional growth in them.

“In order for people to put in more investment (downtown), you have to have more feet walking around,” Esswein said.

His sample shows net taxable property per square foot from William Street to 5th Street averaged $38.32 on Carson Street’s west side. To the south from 7th to Stewart it was $31.61. From Fairview Lane to Koontz Street, the figure was $14.79. To the north, the figures range from a high of $18.17 on the west side of Carson Street close to William Street down to $12.05 on the east side near College Parkway.

Not everyone is buying the idea downtown business will be helped, however, and say this is another attempt to do things a significant segment of the populace doesn’t want.

Maurice White, a retired government worker and member of the Airport Authority, called the downtown core’s three-lane plan “a political football” reminding him of past attempts at downtown projects. He said it’s a slightly altered version of the 2005 Master Plan, which was fashioned at the instigation of “a small, elite group” in Carson City. He also mentioned the City Center project that was voted against by the people.

“People won’t like it,” White said, nor will it lure them downtown if it’s done over their objections to tax increases and without heeding their concerns. White also expressed his own worry it will hurt existing downtown business.

“It’s going to hurt those guys if they’re already marginal,” he said. White said he’s aware city government plans to do the downtown project with as little disruption as possible and knows about the overtures regarding improvement districts, but focused most of his comments on his contention city leadership isn’t following residents’ wishes.

Esswein, meanwhile, favors an improvement district to help provide street amenities and maintain the commercial core. He also said eventual minimum design standards make sense to him for new buildings or for existing property, for example, when it changes hands and is rehabilitated. There’s solid city governing board support for the improvement districts. but design standards are another thing.

The board, which approved one-eighth of a penny more in sales tax to do the downtown work, spruce up other commercial corridors and help fund other capital projects, is expected to vote in November on the Carson Street conceptual downtown design. Then design details will be worked out in 2015, which is the likely time frame for improvement district decision-making as well. Prospects for design standards then appear dicey.

Mayor Robert Crowell knows business buy-in overtures are underway and recognizes their importance, but when asked about design standards he put on the brakes. He said talk of design standards to spruce up the downtown may be taken up at some other point, but it’s not on the table now.

Supervisor Jim Shirk, like his colleagues, was an advocate of businesses and property owners stepping up.

“I do think they should buy in,” he said. He, along with Bonkowski, was asked if the board has leverage or a hammer to get buy-in if there’s foot-dragging. He cited the majority principle for a maintenance district, saying that’s how he understood the way it works in his discussions with Plemel, but he doesn’t believe design standards are in the cards.

“It would be great,” Shirk said. “Is it feasible? I don’t think so.”

When it comes to the downtown concept, meanwhile, whether most residents support or oppose the current three-lane design for downtown there are some who exhibit an appetite to move forward. They know the recession brought most things to a halt in 2009 and into this decade. Judy Welch, a member of the first Chamber of Commerce leadership class in 1989, sounds as though she’s among them.

“I’m so happy to see it,” she said after a presentation of the design at the Community Center. ”It’s investing in our city.”


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