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Streetscape at the crossroads

Funding, direction hang in the balance at tonight’s council meeting.

Plenty of topics have demanded the attention of City Councilors during the 2008 budget discussions. But beneath the surface of all discussion lurks an ever-present reality: they can’t escape the Streetscape.

“I wish you hadn’t made this motion tonight,” Councilman Bill Knobloch told colleague Bob Scales last week, after Scales moved to reconsider the funding scheme of the $20.6 million project. “You’ve opened up a can of worms, Pandora’s box – whatever you want to label it.”

Of all the labels one might attach to the $20.6 million Streetscape, “ubiquitous” might be as apt as any, judging by its prominence in community and council discussions.

The revisiting and slight retooling last week of the Streetscape’s most recent milestone – a roughly sketched funding scheme – will be followed up tonight by what could be its next milestone, approval of a new design phase and allocation of money to keep the project moving forward.

Planners are seeking $1.75 million for engineering, arts development, funding investigation and public outreach for the controversial project, which will repair failing utilities and make surface improvements to Winslow Way beginning in 2009.

Some have criticized the Streetscape funding plan, which for now would split costs between bonds and utility user fees.

Planners have begun exploring the possibility of creating a Local Improvement District, which would require contributions from those properties most directly benefitting from the work.

According to Streetscape Project Manager Chris Wierz­bicki, an LID would most likely be structured around the undergrounding of power, since it would be easy to link specific properties to specific benefits, as required by law in any LID.

Such a plan could raise around $2.1 million from downtown property owners, Wierzbicki said.

Some councilors have pushed for a larger contribution from property owners, while Wierzbicki said asking for too much could harm local businesses.

Scales, whose absence during the original funding vote in September led to a tie-breaking vote by Mayor Darlene Kordonowy, moved to reconsider the Streetscape funding plan at last week’s all-day budget session.

The council directed planners to come back next year with alternatives to the present plan.

“It’s not very clear how we’re going to be funding this,” Scales said. “Perhaps we need to work on this a bit more before the budget is done.”

Many of his colleagues agreed.

“We need to have confidence in these numbers,” Councilwoman Debbie Vancil said. “If I don’t understand as close to the fire as I am, I don’t expect (the community) to.”

Some community members have expressed concerns over the Streetscape at public meetings and by gathering hundreds of signatures for a petition asking leaders to halt the project.

“I think somehow the community has been left out of the discussion,” Councilman Kjell Stoknes said. “They’d like to know what’s going on.”

Some have questioned the scope of the project and whether its currently planned elements are necessary. In response to concerns about cost, a round of value engineering – an itemized review of projected costs by an outside party – may now be incorporated into the work plan.

A recent proposal from the mayor suggested deferring a portion of the work – between Grow and Madison – until later.Wierzbicki said that decision won’t need to be made until May.

The deferment would cut about $4.5 million from the project’s overall cost and would reduce the amount of available LID funding to about $1.5 million.

The design framework for the unfinished portion would still be in place should the city later decide to complete it.

“This project is not going away,” Wierzbicki said. “Unlike some other projects, we’re going to be dealing with this until the day we do something about it.”

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