Dozens of Pittsburg city blocks will get a new name and a new identity after action by the Pittsburg City Commission on Tuesday night.
In a lengthy commission meeting, commissioners eventually passed 5-0 a resolution establishing a downtown overlay district.
The district is large, from 14th on the north to Euclid on the south, with Pine and Elm streets serving as the west and east boundaries, respectively. According to city officials earlier this year, the downtown overlay district may help in the pursuit of grants and other funding opportunities, but the resolution has another effect.
In particular, the resolution notes that merchandise and temporary signage "may be kept on public sidewalks and streets to the extent that it is readily moveable and does not prohibit safe pedestrian traffic," with other verbiage relating the same freedom for furnishings like tables, chairs, benches and bike racks.
But the conversation did not start off with everyone on board. Two members of the public took to the microphone for public input to express their frustration and doubt over the issue.
Becky Harriman said that the district was simply too large, encompassing hundreds of acres. She, as well as other speaker David Fish, compared this downtown district to those in Manhattan and Lawrence, saying that this district is far larger in comparison to places like Aggieville in Manhattan.
Fish was particularly pointed in his remarks, calling the plan a "thinly veiled attempt to slip a poorly conceived" idea past the public. He asked many questions of the plan, suggesting that the ordinance could be used to introduce noise ordinance changes in the future. He also said that he felt the city had not properly informed the public about the issue.
"The city does not notify people that live in this district. It was not posted. It was not advertised in any public meeting. It was not previously considered. I don't see why it's being rushed through," Fish said.
Local downtown business owners then spoke up, also in the public input section, about how they are in favor of the downtown overlay district.
That included the owners of Signet Coffee Roasters, who spoke about their desire to place a small table on the sidewalk or signage outside their store. Their words were echoed by Terri Steele, owner of JST Bobby G's.
"We're asking it be approved, as well," Steele said. "It hasn't been quick, and we're not trying to push this past you. It's been almost a year now. We want to put out a [cigarette butt] bucket and put out signs. This has not been haphazardly put together. This has been talked about a long time by a lot of people."
Colonial Fox Theatre Foudnation executive director Vonnie Corsini told the commissioners about the importance of a heritage/arts district.
"We encourage you to consider the long view of the downtown district. We have a downtown group looking for branding and a look for downtown," she said. "That would be a far more appealing tourism opportunity."
Tim Kundiger, also a downtown business owner, spoke from the interesting position of also being on the Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals. He said that he was both for and against the district, specifically decrying the sheer size of the district.
In comparison to Lawrence and Manhattan, he said, Pittsburg has the "least population, and is trying to group the most area" of a downtown district. He also asked about ADA requirements in regard to the signage/furnishings and items that would be authorized to be on the sidewalks.
"I think it would be better to start small, and add as you improve than to potentially have to shrink it later," Kundiger said.
After the public comment section, the attention turned to the city staff and the city commissioners. Assistant public works director Troy Graham said that downtown business owners and leaders approached the city more than six months ago about an overlay district.
Graham said that the Planning and Zoning committee heard the issue in October, and said that the district and the language in the resolutions were intentionally vague so as to get more people involved.
The only changes in the language for this as compared to the city's other overlay districts is the specific performance standards — the ability to keep signs, merchandise and furnishings on the sidewalks.
Further, Graham said that the process has not been quick, with at least three or four meetings, as well as a meeting specifically about the issue that was advertised in the paper.
Commissioners all prefaced their comments by saying they were in favor of the idea, before asking specific questions related to the district.
Mayor Michael Gray went specifically through a number of questions raised by Fish and Harriman, including who will oversee the district (city staff) and who will enforce the codes (the zoning administrator), and that no changes are included to the noise ordinance. As for the ADA complaints, those will be complaint-driven.
Commissioner Chuck Munsell was worried about items being on the sidewalk and a large number of people being blocked while leaving, in one scenario, a fully restored and expanded Colonial Fox Theatre.
Commissioner Patrick O'Bryan said that he thought the boundaries of the district were "a little too aggressive," and that the boundaries shouldn't have been pushed out to include certain businesses.
"I think the prospect of having tables and chairs and signage on the street is a good idea. It makes the town look more vibrant. Even merchandise on the sidewalk creates excitement to people who are shopping or hope to shop," he said. "It's an energized feeling... I think it's good the way this is written so the heavy hand of government doesn't rest so heavily on people who are living there."
Munsell began to ask why some didn't know the situation going on downtown before O'Bryan answered.
"There's always been a number of property owners that choose not to become involved in these kind of things so they can moan and bellyache about not being involved....For more than 48 years, this has been the case. This has been talked about in the newspaper, in city commission meetings. City staff worked on this up and down the street. They tried to contact people. Sometimes, people just need to get off their butts and find out about it themselves," O'Bryan said.