Downtown Forward: BG residents start reimagining

By Peter Kuebeck, [email protected]

Bowling Green residents got the opportunity to start thinking about the future of downtown on Thursday.

A community feedback session, held at the Veterans Memorial Building at City Park, was the second such session this week and is part of the city’s Downtown Forward program. The city is partnering with Bowling Green State University’s Center for Regional Development in the effort as part of the CRD’s Reimagining Rural Regions – or R3 – program.

The end result will be to create a community placemaking strategic plan based on a process of community engagement, ultimately resulting in a series of two to three projects that the community can undertake. The goal is to have the projects selected around April to May.

Russell Mills, senior director of the CRD, said that the next four to six months of the project would be involved in public engagement. He said that the city previously did similar downtown visioning projects during the Heritage 1976 and Heritage 2000 initiatives.

“Downtown Forward embodies the spirit and legacy of those previous Heritage efforts, with a more forward-facing approach,” he said.

The initiative is focused on placemaking projects and priorities in the downtown. The efforts focus on the downtown corridor – from Clay Street to Lehman Avenue, and from Church Street to Prospect Street, and the East Wooster corridor to the university.

At the back of the large meeting room on Thursday, a series of a dozen posters were situated on stands. On either margin of the posters were two choices: whether the poster’s subject was a Source of Pride or had Room for Improvement. Each participant during the session was given two stickers and, before the meeting started, were asked to choose one of the posters’ subjects as a source of pride, and another as having room for improvement.

The posters included Wood County District Public Library and the new city building, Black Swamp Arts Festival and Firefly Nights, parking lots and garbage corrals, public art, historical facades, Wooster Green, downtown housing, alleyways, on-street parking and parklets, sidewalk display and seating for restaurants. There were also Downtown Street Shots: Mix of Local Retail and Restaurants and Alumni Gateway posters. The posters bore stickers from both of of this week’s sessions.

The major choice for the Source of Pride was Black Swamp and Firefly festivals, with public art and historical facades also receiving significant votes. Receiving the largest share of votes for room for improvement were parking lots and garbage corrals, and downtown housing, with Wooster Green also receiving a significant number.

After Mills’ introduction, the group of approximately 30 attendees broke into small group discussions, each focused on a different topic: Accessibility, Walkability and Bike Paths; Aesthetics and Physical Appearance; Connection to the BGSU Campus; Downtown Living and Residential Properties; Events, Entertainment and Festivals; and Mix of Restaurants, Retail and Services. Each of the groups was led by a CRD representative, with the comments and ideas produced in the discussion recorded on large sheets of paper.

The Accessibility, Walkability and Bike Paths group felt that downtown prioritizes cars too much, and that they would like to see crosswalks added to the outer parts of Main and Wooster streets, and more bicycle accessibility downtown. They also wanted to see work on some sidewalks in the downtown, and better handicapped accessibility to stores and parking lots.

The Aesthetics group said they would like to see public art downtown beyond murals, and improvements in the East Wooster corridor’s transition to the downtown. They also suggested wayfarer signage, historical facade preservation – possibly with the aid of a grant program – and improvements to garbage corrals.

The Connection to BGSU group said they would like to see a free gathering space for non-profit organizations or others to use for meetings, better integration of community members onto the campus, and a community mentorship program to get BGSU students more involved with the city’s population.

The Downtown Living group suggested more “healthy living” amenities downtown like a fitness center and markets; available hotels, AirBnBs or short-term rental facilities; the use of rooftops for gardens or lounge areas as a means to entice people to live downtown; a variability in the level of living options downtown; and a parking garage or covered lots for the use of downtown residents.

The Events, Entertainment and Festivals group suggested parking improvements, making better use of Wooster Green, centralized planning so that events don’t overlap, and “Ladies’” and “Guys’” night events downtown.

The Restaurants, Retail and Services group suggested increasing the availability or public knowledge of grants – or creating new grants – for existing businesses or start-ups; creating “packages” of the necessary licenses that businesses require to reduce red tape; improving the utilization of Wooster Green; streamlining processes for hiring BGSU students; and better synergy between the city and the university.

At the close of the meeting, Mills noted that the city has a Downtown Forward webpage, which will serve as the repository for the information collected. He said there will be further opportunities for focus groups, public surveys and other public engagement events throughout the winter and early spring.

In additional recent business, Bowling Green Council met earlier this month and established their goals for 2023. The goals include:

• Continuing to focus on neighborhood revitalization efforts and implementation of Community Action Plan-related initiatives. This includes the completion of the rental registration and self-inspection program underway by the end of 2023, and an increased emphasis on streets, sidewalks and drainage.

• Moving forward with the implementation of the new zoning code and updating Chapter 151, “Subdivision Regulations.”

• Continuing the commitment to Complete Streets through either policy or ordinance. This includes improving the downtown experience for pedestrians; completing a design study/traffic analysis for downtown as called for in the Future Land Use Plan; and contracting for an engineering/design study for Main Street from Napoleon Road to Newton Road to add a combination of protected on-street bicycle lanes and/or shared use paths, and to evaluate other infrastructure to improve pedestrian and bicycle safety.

• Emphasize council’s commitment to the city’s sustainability values. This includes creating a downtown pilot recycling/composting program, and helping residents, in an appropriate manner, to increase energy efficiency and renewable energy generation.

• Advancing the Gateway project.