Oxford Village officials formally put all of their eggs in the streetscape basket on Monday evening.
During a joint meeting held at the Oxford Public Library, the village council and Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board voted unanimously to submit a grant application to the state’s Transportation Alternatives Program (TAP) and move forward with the streetscape project.
The application is due Oct. 30. Officials hope to receive $525,945 in TAP monies to help pay for a variety of streetscape improvements along M-24 from one end of the DDA district to the other when the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) performs a full reconstruction of the state highway in either 2019 or 2020.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Councilman Joe Frost. “According to MDOT, this section of highway has not been completely reconstructed, down to the dirt, since 1922.”
In addition to completely tearing out the road, downtown’s sidewalks, along with trees and light poles, will be removed and replaced. This is the village’s chance to make improvements while M-24 is a clean slate.
“We know where the deficiencies are in our streetscape and this is attempt to fix those, (to) make Oxford a better place,” said DDA Executive Director Glenn Pape.
These improvements are meant to enhance pedestrian safety and comfort, abate noise pollution, calm traffic and create a sense of place that invites visitors.
“We want to have as much life in the front (of the buildings along M-24) as there (currently) is in the back,” said Interim Village Manager Evan Teich.
Let’s talk money
The total budget for the streetscape improvement project is $1.86 million.
In addition to the $525,945 in grant money the village is applying for, MDOT is giving the municipality a credit of $647,093 to pay for infrastructure its removing. The village can put this credit toward its new streetscape.
The village is going to kick in $689,736. Of this, $262,973 is matching money for the TAP grant and $426,763 is for other items that TAP can’t pay for.
“We’re doing a lot of things that aren’t grant eligible,” Pape said.
Not included in the aforementioned figures is the $99,204 the village is setting aside as contingency money.
The village’s budget for the project is limited to $790,000. To get its share, the village will use $200,000 from its general fund, $250,000 from the DDA, $150,000 from the major roads fund and borrow $150,000 from the motor vehicle fund.
“Our goal here is not to put ourselves in any financial risk, so we’ve been very conservative about where we’re getting this money from,” Pape said.
Included in the village’s budget is an estimated $40,000 in donations which officials are hoping to secure. “We’ve had some preliminary conversations. It’s not finalized yet,” Pape said.
Teich said the village has been talking to the Rotary Club of Oxford about making a big donation. “They want a large project that they can put their name on,” he said.
Fund-raising efforts won’t be limited to $40,000. “The more we can get in gifts and other grants – we’re still investigating other grants as well – the less the loan is from the motor vehicle fund,” Pape said.
Grant or no grant
Pape believes the village’s chances of obtaining the TAP grant are very high. “There are several things in our favor,” he said.
Oxford’s streetscape project scores “very high” based the “standards” used to evaluate TAP applicants. “One of the nice things about these types of grants is they tell you up front how to score well . . . so that you can get approved,” Pape said.
That’s good because, as he explained, MDOT has “a large pool of money” in TAP and when the time comes to dole it out, “they basically start at the top and reward the top scorers until they run out of money.”
Teich explained the plan has “scalability,” so if the village doesn’t get all the money it’s seeking, it can downsize things.
“We’re more confident about getting the grant than we are about when (the project’s going to happen),” Pape noted.
That’s because just last week, the village learned that MDOT is considering moving the M-24 reconstruction to 2020.
“We believe that official word is going to come soon that it’s probably going to get moved back to 2020, which we actually think is a good idea for us,” Teich said. “It will give us more time to refine our plans. It will give us more time to do public outreach.”
Either way, the village is still applying for the TAP grant now.
Still in the concept phase
Monday’s joint meeting between council and the DDA board was simply about the grant application and the streetscape budget. The final streetscape design/plan has not been created, so nothing is carved in stone at this point. Things are still subject to change.
“This is all still conceptual,” Pape said. “There’s so much in the air.”
Right now, the concept plan calls for adding raised, 11-foot-wide medians, with marked crosswalks, at the intersections of Dennison/M-24/Stanton and East St./M-24.
These will serve as islands of refuge for pedestrians crossing the busy state highway. The median will give them a safe place to stop, so they can cross two lanes at a time as opposed to trying to tackle the entire road at once.
Under the concept plan, traffic signals at the intersection of Burdick St. and M-24 would be affixed to new mast arms as opposed to hanging from wires as they do now.
The mast arms are designed to reduce the amount of infrastructure “clutter,” as Pape put it, at the intersection and add a tall visual element that’s meant to calm traffic. “The idea is to create kind of a gateway effect at the four corners, so the traffic slows down,” he said.
Pape noted as part of the project, the signals at Burdick St., Broadway St. and Drahner Rd. will be tied together. “That’s going to allow for signal coordination so that we can move traffic through at a smooth flow,” he explained.
Light poles, outdoor seating, bollards, bicycle racks, directories, planters and trees will all be added to the new streetscape to help reduce noise and provide buffers between pedestrians on the sidewalk and vehicles on the road. Pape said it’s important to create a “sense of security for the pedestrian.”
The concept plan calls for street lighting throughout the entire DDA corridor. “Our intent, at this point, is to have lighting from one end of the village to the other,” Pape said.
In the core downtown (the four quadrants), the light poles will be situated closer together. Moving away from the core area to the north and south, the lights will be spaced farther apart.
“The lighting lets you know that you are now leaving the open state highway system and you are coming into a densely-populated village,” Teich said.
The concept plan calls for 25 light poles in the core downtown with an additional 60 to the north and south, according to Pape.
“One of the things we are doing is we’re going to be running conduit the entire length (of M-24, so) as the village (adds development) going south or north, we can add in more light poles . . . as the downtown expands,” Pape said.
“We set this up to be a framework so as the village and the DDA’s fortunes grow, we can invest more in our downtown as needed,” he noted.
The streetscape budget allocates funds for both purchasing new lights and refurbishing any existing ones that can be salvaged.
“We are going to try and reuse as many of them as possible,” Pape said. “It’s much cheaper to refurbish than put in a brand new pole.”
As for street seating, Pape said any new benches must be low maintenance, high durability and comfortable.
“Those are the three key things,” he said.
In addition to installing stationary planters, the village is looking to add moveable ones to the new streetscape. During the winter, they can be moved elsewhere, so they don’t interfere with Department of Public Works (DPW) employees while they are clearing snow.
When working on the streetscape concept, the village garnered input from the DPW, along with police and fire personnel.
“This has been a consensus-based design process,” Pape said.
“We didn’t want to design a plan that couldn’t be maintained,” Teich said. “There’s no sense in having a multi-million dollar plan that you can’t maintain.”
As for street trees, Pape said 40 new ones would be planted in the core downtown with an additional 20 trees to the north and south.
Sue Grissim, a principal and vice president at Grissim Metz Andriese Associates – the firm hired to design the streetscape and develop the grant proposal – noted the budget includes special lighting. It utilizes projectors that can be affixed to buildings or light poles to shine various patterns and colors of light on the sidewalks below. Grissim said it’s “very affordable” and “no one else is doing it.” She noted it would “add special sparkle” to the downtown at night.
On-street parking will remain part of the new streetscape on both sides of M-24.
Although the design is still in “flux,” Pape said, “Our target is to keep the same amount of parking spaces we have on-street right now.”
The only on-street parking that’s going to be completely eliminated are the spaces in front of Centennial Park. “We’re trying to create more of a plaza-like effect in front of Centennial Park with a 19-foot-wide sidewalk and then some planters in front of that to provide some noise and debris buffering,” Pape explained.
Even though MDOT is removing all of the on-street parking as part of its reconstruction, it’s up to the village to pay for the re-installation. The cost is approximately $50,000 for pavement and striping.
Narrower lanes, slower speeds
MDOT has agreed to narrow the lane widths through the downtown from about 12 feet (what they are now) to 11 feet in the hopes of slowing traffic.
“Usually, when you feel more closed in, you slow down,” Teich said. “When (the road) open(s) up, you put the pedal to the metal.”
The village is looking to keep vehicle speeds at 30 miles per hour or less.
“Right now, you’ve got a design speed on M-24 somewhere between 40 and 45 miles per hour and that’s not acceptable for a downtown because with a design speed that high, you can post it at 30 (mph), but unless you’re out there doing enforcement all day long, it doesn’t matter,” Pape said. “If the design speeds are too high, traffic’s going to move at a high rate of speed.”
In addition to safety, Pape noted the other reason to slow traffic “is purely economic.” He explained that drivers don’t notice storefronts unless they’re traveling at 30 mph or less. The village hopes that slowing drivers will “entice” them to stop and visit stores.
“We’re doing everything in our power to slow traffic down as it moves through this downtown, so that we can get it down to a steady flow rather than a high-speed flow.”
“This is your downtown and you should slow down as you drive through it,” Teich said.
Thanks to the narrower lanes, there will be an extra 5 feet to dedicate to sidewalk width, plus an additional 2 feet from narrower on-street parking spaces, according to Grissim.
No new traffic signals
Folks hoping additional traffic lights will be part of the new streetscape will be sorely disappointed. “We’re not going to get any more signals,” Pape said.
MDOT conducted studies at the Dennison/M-24/Stanton and East St./M-24 intersections and neither met the guidelines.
“There just isn’t the side-street traffic that would warrant a signal there,” Pape said.
Support your local businesses
Teich stressed how “really important” it’s going to be for residents and others to continue patronizing downtown businesses “during and after construction,” so they don’t have to close their doors. “About 80 percent of economic development is keeping who you have and having them grow versus trying to fill vacant spots,” he said.
Even though M-24 and the front sidewalks will be torn up during the reconstruction, Teich reminded folks that “most, if not 90 percent, of the parking, is behind these businesses.”
When it comes to business retention, Pape said Oxford will be seeking expert technical assistance through Oakland County.
“Folks can be assured that we are going to do everything possible from our end to make sure your businesses can come out the other end in good shape,” he said.