Miriam Morris: Creating a strong and resilient town
Let us continue the discussion of outdoor public space that Bethany Celio initiated in her recent opinion column.
Yes, it is wonderful both Grass Valley and Nevada City have loosened restrictions to allow outdoor dining spaces. I appreciate, too, the mention of Chuck Marohn’s Strong Town movement. City leaders and citizens interested in sustainable, resilient, financially solvent cities would benefit from implementing Strong Town ideas.
They host a website, podcasts, and have published books on how cities can become vital, economically independent entities in a practical, clear-eyed, bottom-up way. At the heart of the Strong Town’s philosophy is incrementalism and meeting existing needs based on empirical evidence. Locally, the COVID-inspired outdoor dining met an immediate need and is adjusted, as necessary. When the rain and cold weather come, we will have to shift our strategies again.
Putting temporary installations aside, in Nevada City permanent public space is being considered. The city is in the position to enhance the public corridor on lower Commercial Street. Recently, the Planning Commission voted 2–1 to make no changes to the streetscape and rejected the proposed design changes presented by city staff.
The matter then went to Nevada City Council, who sent the item back to staff. Whatever the ultimate decision, it will affect the public for a long time to come, and should not be decided until all five commissioners are present, and after more effort has gone into reaching a compromise.
As an argument against adding seating on Commercial Street, I have heard Nevada City Council and community members remark on the abundance of seating already downtown. Seating is used for different purposes, though.
While some people prefer the solitude and gardens of Calanan Park, others want to see and be seen sitting at street-side benches and cafe tables. No matter what seating is available or how inviting it is, use depends on how many people have free time to sit around. Event days, lunchtime, holidays, and weekends will always have more activity than most other times.
Using the Strong Town approach, observation of how spaces are used, what needs there are in an average week, and what can be reasonably maintained and paid for, is the best design information. Designing for peak use and imagined maintenance capability will create poorly maintained and under-used spaces.
In my opinion, the best design for lower Commercial is a widened sidewalk on the south side with no change in width to the north (too many obstructions). This would accommodate shop-managed cafe seating and a few benches for public use. Business cared-for planters and a few street trees could add greenery and shade. If the one-way traffic lane were narrowed to 11 feet, parallel parking could remain on one side.
This is a modest, flexible approach where businesses would care for and maintain amenities in front of their shops and the city would be responsible only for a couple of benches, as has been done on pre-COVID Broad Street.
The hard part is convincing the Planning Commission and historic groups that a marginally widened sidewalk with some seating does not threaten the historical integrity of the street but would add to its use and enjoyment by the public.
Increased use equals healthier businesses, increased tax revenue, and increased community ownership of public space, helping to create a strong and resilient town.
Miriam Morris lives in Nevada City.
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