Three blocks of Douglas’ main drag, G Avenue, have been selected by the city for renovations and proposed improvements to infrastructure and aesthetics as part of the city’s Downtown Revitalization Project. But some business owners are against the streetscape project — that encompasses those three blocks — with concerns about the cost and design.
The Downtown Revitalization Project itself was catalyzed by the federal proposal for the new port of entry. Douglas Mayor Donald Huish said as part of the process, the federal government provided a study for the city, seeking community input, to see what downtown would look like when the new port opens in 2028.
“Meaning what type of activity, what type of businesses, what type of commerce would happen in the downtown area,” Huish said.
The Mayor said the feedback the city received highlighted the need to revamp the downtown infrastructure.
“Many of the sidewalks are cracked, missing, etcetera, etcetera,” he said.
The initial plan included an estimated $8.1 million dollars for construction costs to upgrade sidewalks, lighting, utilities, landscaping and street furniture along G Avenue from 9th Street to 12th Street and 10th Street from G Avenue to D Avenue. Site amenities also included chilled drinking fountains, bike racks, shade structures at intersections and a downtown sound and wifi system.
But due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Huish said funding for the project became uncertain and the project was placed on hold. The estimated budget for the streetscape has since been reduced to $3.9 million dollars.
“We initially thought that we could squeeze out a few hundred-thousand dollars each year for maybe two or three years to maybe attack the project that way," said Huish. "But that wasn’t feasible at that time.”
He said since then, the city has received funds from the American Rescue Plan that they could use towards the project, but noted that it isn’t enough to fully cover the cost. Huish said the city has applied for congressional discretionary funding at $2.9 million dollars to make up the difference.
City Manager Ana Urquijo said that instead taking on the entire project all at once, the city will now take a phased approach.
"This decision was made in an effort to better manage resources, mitigate potential disruption to our community, and to keep the project moving forward in a sustainable manner," said Urquijo in a written response. "Phase I prioritizes key foundational elements of the streetscape. This includes critical infrastructure such as sidewalks, road pavement, curbs and gutters, junction boxes, utility lines, and an irrigation system, along with landscaping."
Three design proposals for those three blocks of G Avenue were sent out to the public in a digital survey for comment. The first concept doesn’t narrow the street but shortens the crosswalk at 9th and 10th street and the current 16-spot angled parking remains. The second proposal widens the sidewalk from 13 feet to 20 feet, removes the middle turn lane and takes out two parking spots from each side of the street. The third option widens the sidewalk to 24 feet, keeps the middle turn lane but removes the angled parking and replaces it with parallel parking.
Once completed, Urquijo said the city will turn its efforts towards phase two of the project.
"Which encompasses the installation of site amenities and electrical components," Urquijo said. "Our team is actively exploring additional funding avenues to facilitate this phase of the project and ensure that our city receives the full benefits of the planned improvements."
She added that most of the community feedback contained concerns about the designs, noting that some members confused the streetscape portion of the project as the only component to the downtown revitalization project.
“All of it is packaged as a streetscape issue and it's more than that," said Urquijo. "Because the designer focused on three blocks doesn’t mean that out plan for Douglas and downtown revitalization only includes three blocks. So, we’re really spanning all of G Avenue.”
Other businesses want the city to focus on fixing the buildings along G Avenue first, but Urquijo said those are private property. Ralph Robles, the President of the Douglas Business Network, said that he doesn't like the proposal to take out the middle turn lane on G Avenue and he'd just like the city to break ground on the project.
"The open buildings, the vacant buildings, making them more presentable, more attractable to be bought or to be used, or to be rented, you know, I think that's something that the city should look into," said Robles. "Either the city investing into these vacant properties and selling them to local investors that want to start their own business ... I think that's something that's really important and I don't really see a push on coming from the city. A private-public partnership would look nice where the city could help out with the purchase or partial purchase of some vacant buildings downtown and help establish a business."
Some business owners oppose the city’s plan for the streetscape designs from 9th-through-12th street. Eric Braverman, who's the Museum Curator of the Last Supper Museum located on the corner of 11th street and G avenue, argued the proposed designs by J2 Engineering and Environmental Design take away from Douglas’ historic look and feel.
He’s circulated petitions against the project since last year. As of last month, Braverman got 65 people to sign, most being local business owners.
Tanya Duarte, who’s the manager at the Gadsden Hotel across the street, said she also has concerns about the city’s plan, namely the focus on the three blocks and the potential for drainage issues along G Avenue if the sidewalks are widened.
“Creating wider sidewalks means that all of the property owners have to increase their drainage, because the drains currently go from the buildings under the sidewalks into the drainage," said Duarte. "And so, they would have to add significantly to that for each building, in multiple locations on some buildings.”
In response to the petitions, city management said that the petitions may not directly affect project plans, they do impact the conversation and could lead to further adjustments.