Renewing district important to city's long-term progress
The Decatur Planning Commission apparently wasn't expecting the reaction to its proposed downtown redevelopment district members received at last week's public hearing.
The district boundaries are from Fifth and 14th streets on the north and south and Sixth Avenue and the railroad on the east and west. The public outcry was so loud, including from Mayor Don Kyle, that the commission withdrew its plan and promised to create an owners' group to provide input.
The commission is on the right track, though. The area is economically depressed, and the city needs to do something to respond to the popular refrain that it needs to become more development-friendly.
But neither the cover letter nor the draft ordinance sent to homeowners and businesses in the district clearly spelled out the intent.
The letter said the redevelopment district was "designed to promote the renewal and increase the stability of your neighborhood."
Planners earnestly believe the district will make the property more valuable to its owners as well as the entire city's economy. But they didn't spell out in plain language how the city proposed to accomplish that, the mayor told planners in asking them to withdraw their ordinance.
In creating the district, planners said they wanted to eliminate a patchwork of differently zoned properties to allow potential developers to combine smaller tracts into larger, more desirable properties. They wanted to allow different property uses to co-exist, allowing, for instance, a homeowner to have an antiques store on the first floor of a house while continuing to live upstairs. But it wasn't clear in the letter that brought dozens of property owners to the public hearing.
Moreover, the proposed ordinance suggested property owners could be subject to historical district regulations regarding building materials. It prohibited outside storage and above ground tanks, which could both force out the milk plant there now and prevent convenience stores from locating there.
It also contained other provisions, such as landscaping, that were well meaning but could hamper practical business and traffic-flow considerations. It might have forced business owners with simple metal buildings to pay for costly facelifts for their property.
It may not have been the commission's intent, but it was the common fear. As one audience member told planners, "You lost me when you said, 'We're the government and we're here to help.' "
By the end of the meeting, commission members appeared ready to delete references to the adjacent historic district. Some suggested exempting current property owners from new requirements. They may allow new standards and improved appearance to fill in the area over time.
Planners won't be able to satisfy property owners who just don't want anything to change, but we hope they will be able to accomplish their goal of improving an important piece of the city's business and residential areas.
City leaders should not allow naysayers to hold back renewal that is long overdue.