What will our Main Street look like?

Somewhere – we’re not sure just where – the planning process for downtown seems to have gone awry.

Surely it’s not for lack of effort. We have our all-island Comprehensive Plan, our Winslow Master Plan and our annual capital facilities plan, all of which address downtown infrastructure. Yet when it comes time to actually pour concrete, vociferous objections arise, accompanied invariably by the statement that “you haven’t listened to us.”

Last time, the locus of the problem was Ericksen Avenue, and it took a year to resolve. This year, the locus is the eastern segment of Winslow Way, from the highway to Ericksen.

At a meeting beginning tonight at 6 p.m. at City Hall, our council will consider both a more artistic approach to the downtown “Gateway,” and two alternative plans for the intersection – somewhat offset – of Winslow Way, Ericksen Avenue and Bjune Drive. One plan (which the Department of Public Works endorses) would put stop signs on Winslow Way at Ericksen, and prohibit left turns off of Bjune. The other plan would chuck the stop signs but add a center-turn lane on Winslow, and drop the speed limit to 10 mph.

One difference between the two is parking. The stop-sign plan actually adds one parking space, the center-lane plan subtracts four, consistent with the business community’s statements that preserving parking is the No. 1 priority.

Yet some downtown businesses are now opting for the center-lane plan. Some fear a stop sign would back up traffic leaving the ferry; some like the center lane for delivery trucks and for business access.

Then there are overarching concerns that extend beyond the issues specific to the Winslow-Ericksen intersection. For starters, there is the disruption of what seems like an unending string of construction projects, some public, some private. And there is concern for the future – the mega-disruption that will occur when the “heart” of Winslow Way, from Ericksen to Madison, is rebuilt. (Although this project has somehow disappeared from the most recent capital facilities plan).

The underlying problem, we think, is that there simply isn’t enough of Winslow Way to go around. We – or at least some of us – want it to be a major traffic arterial, a bike path, a pedestrian walkway, a landscaped plaza, a delivery area and a parking lot, while remaining our community’s “soul” and retail core. Every one of those demands is legitimate, and every one has been incorporated into the various plans for downtown. But there’s simply not enough room to accomplish all of those things, and none of our plans dares prioritize those desirable objectives.

Another problem is the all-too-human tendency to deal first with what is immediate – meaning a number of players don’t come to the table during the planning phase, but only get interested at implementation, when concrete is going to be poured in a way they suddenly find objectionable.

A number of community leaders have suggested a comprehensive planning effort for downtown. While we like that in theory, we wonder how, this time, it would be different. Can we really find a way to bring all the interest groups to the table? If so, are we really willing to make compromises? Are we willing to address all of the issues, including off-street parking and delivery needs? And are the politicians, present and future, really willing to abide by the outcome?

If you answered “no” to any or all of these questions,

perhaps our planning efforts, inadequate though they sometimes seem, are the best we can do.

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