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Archive for February, 2009

A quick news flash, because I’m tired: Jerry Cleworth’s resolution, which I think would have kneecapped the downtown revitalization effort,  failed — though only through a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.  The final vote: For, Cleworth, Roberts, and Stiver; Against, Bratcher, Gatewood, Eberhart, and Mayor Strle.  (News-Miner story here.)

As I posted Saturday, City Councilman Jerry Cleworth proposed a resolution (no. 4353) that would have halted the use of city funds for the conversion of Cushman Street from one-way to two-way.  This conversion, however, was the linchpin of Vision Fairbanks, according to the city planners hired to draft downtown’s revitalization plan (Crandall-Arambula of Portland, Oregon).

From the start of Citizens’ Comments on Monday evening to the final vote, four and a half hours passed.  At least three of those were spent on public testimony, including a little testimony on another other resolution before the Council.  The testimony was largely in opposition to Cleworth’s resolution — though not so overwhelmingly as it was in favor of Vision Fairbanks’s passage at previous meetings.

Despite the good case that existed in favor of the resolution — and Mr. Cleworth seemed to make that case beautifully — it seemed plain to me that most of the citizens testifying in favor had not attended any of the original visioning meetings, had not read the final plan approved by the Borough Assembly, or had heard only spotty details through the newspaper or word of mouth.  Of course, you could also say that most of the supporters had merely drunk the Vision Fairbanks Kool-Aid and that their testimony didn’t address the meat of Cleworth’s concerns either.  Frankly, I was tired enough when he finally spoke that I couldn’t keep all the pieces together.

There was a relatively brief grilling of Fairbanks Public Works director Mike Schmetzer, City Engineer Bob Pristash, and Donna Gardino of FMATS (the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System).  They covered the history of certain appropriations and projects, and discussed the sources and allocation of various monies.  It’s probably not over my head in principle, but it felt like it at 10:45 at night.

Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had what I thought was the most sensible suggestion of the evening: postpone the vote on the resolution until Wednesday’s work session and later public meeting with Crandall Arambula.  If we can present our concerns to them, she reasoned, they may have a good explanation of how various projects will work, or at least convince us of the utter necessity of this current project.  Cleworth was the only other person to support her, so it failed.

Some comments made by Stiver and Chad Roberts concerned me: they both seem to think Fairbanks’s chance of attracting major retail downtown is low to nil.  They seem to think that, since the explosion of big-box chain retail outlets at Steese and Johansen, the City of Fairbanks has missed the boat.  Of course, attracting a major anchor store on Cushman Street is supposedly critical to Vision Fairbanks’s success.  If they’re right, then the plan is largely screwed — I hope not irredemably.

(This makes me wonder: Why, when V.F. was before the Council earlier, did they cower in fear at its suggestion that one regulatory tool of encouraging downtown retail might be to restrict big-box retail development elsewhere for a time?  Why did their resolution’s otherwise tepid language condemn the inclusion of such a suggestion in the plan?)

I should mention that some of the City Council members seemed genuinely torn about what to do, most notably Bernard Gatewood and John Eberhart.  And, when I talk about Jerry Cleworth “kneecapping” or “deep-sixing” Vision Fairbanks, that’s not really being fair to him.  I think he’s a responsible public servant with a clear understanding of the budget, and he has responsible stewardship at heart.

My only real distrust — and this just as far as a vision for vibrant civic and commercial space — is for Chad Roberts.  He seems genuinely to believe that downtown is just fine as it is.  Also, during the Council meeting ten months ago, he expressed an admiration for the free market that seemed to preclude a community’s having any power to say what it wanted in a city center.  Whatever his other virtues, he seems to disagree with me that communities have a right of collective self-determination that, where city planning is concerned, should usually supersede the right of the individual to build whatever civic monstrosity he likes.

I’m happy for now that Vision Fairbanks lives to fight another day.

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Anybody reading today’s (Saturday’s) News Miner knows that Jerry Cleworth of the Fairbanks City Council has proposed a resolution that would halt Cushman’s conversion into a two-way street.  While his goal of saving money is admirable, the proposal is short-sighted and would deal a major blow to the revitalization of downtown.

You can help downtown — and, by extension, all of Fairbanks — by attending the City Council meeting this Monday (February 9) and testifying against this resolution.  Citizens’ testimony begins at 7:00.

Cleworth is quoted as asking: “Would it not be wiser to try and get some infrastructure upgrades such as sidewalks and streets rather than spending it redirecting traffic?”

By his question, Councilman Cleworth trivializes the value of turning Cushman into a two-way street. He tries to make it sound as if all the money will do is redirect traffic, and thus shows a shallow understanding of the effect of vehicular traffic on a business district.

I can think easily of three reasons for turning Cushman — supposedly our “Main Street” — from one-way to two:

  1. When a network of one-way streets requires lots of turns and out-of-direction travel, individual businesses suffer. Despite the alleged convenience of cars, people have only so much patience, and they’re less likely to visit a business if it requires turning several times.
  2. When a downtown is plagued by a network of confusing one-way streets, people are likely to avoid downtown altogether, and all businesses suffer. People like to have multiple ways in and out of a business district, and they like to know it will be easy to navigate.
  3. When converted to two-way, traffic speeds on Cushman (and Barnette, don’t forget) will be reduced, since drivers (as a whole) are more cautious on a two-way street than on a one-way. This will make Cushman a more appealing place for pedestrians, which is at the crux of Vision Fairbanks. Places that invite pedestrians also invite business, since people, at their slower pace, are more likely to stop at establishments unexpectedly.

The conversion of Cushman to two-way traffic is not trivial; it is a catalyst project that is meant to attract new businesses, and perhaps the linchpin of the whole Vision Fairbanks plan.  If you were an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you rather locate your store where people could reach it more easily, on their way into and out of your neighborhood?

I appreciate that Councilman Cleworth is concerned for the wise allocation of limited City money. But I’m afraid that his resolution, if passed, will pound a nail in downtown’s coffin and only fulfill the prophecies of those nay-sayers who have decried Vision Fairbanks from the start.

Please encourage the City Council to reject this resolution. Encourage them to follow through on this crucial part of a project that has received overwhelming community support and that will make downtown again a very worthwhile place to be.  Come to the City Council meeting this Monday evening; wear blue to show your support for Vision Fairbanks; and tell the Council members that Cushman Street must be made two-way!

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