Strategic Plan To-Do List: Commercial Character

The City of Decatur finally unveiled its “to-do” list for the next 10 years last night at a Open House at the Holiday Inn Conference Center.  The list is still in draft format, which means that resident input can still help modify and refine goals, but ultimately much of this list will end up as the city’s specific mission over the next 10 years.

That’s pretty darn important.

So while you’re obviously welcome to flip through the entire list of “tasks” HERE right now, I’m going to try to give a bit more exposure to the specific tasks proposed in the plan by featuring one goal and its associated tasks, once a day, until we’ve gotten through them all.

So, let’s just start from the beginning, shall we?

Goal 1: Retain and enhance the character of existing commercial districts and expand it to new districts

Walkable, human-scaled commercial districts in Downtown and Oakhurst are a hallmark of Decatur today. In the coming decade, as these areas grow and evolve, and as new commercial areas at east Decatur Station and the east lake Marta station emerge, they must do so in a manner that preserves and replicates their best aspects. this means ensuring that development occurs in a way that reinforces and expands the lively, pedestrian-friendly development patterns that make these places special, while respecting their context.

Task 1a: Refine citywide commercial design standards.

Design standards should  be refined to support quality commercial and mixed-use growth. these should recognize the unique character and scale of Decatur’s neighborhoods, and avoid one-size-fits-all approaches.  Updated standards for utility burial, architectural design, and parking should be explored as part of these refinements.

Task 1B: Adopt new sign ordinance requirements to encourage more compatible signage in commercial districts.

Task 1C: Update the Downtown Decatur Special Pedestrian area guidelines and expand the downtown streetscape program.

Existing guidelines have promoted a high quality of development on key streets downtown, but updates are now needed. Among the suggested changes are enhanced standards for the protection of historic storefronts, requirements for inter-parcel connectivity, and an expanded area.  In addition, the downtown streetscape network should continue to be expanded.

Task 1D: Improve the appearance of Decatur’s commercial districts in ways that reinforce their roles as community focal points.

Upgrades could include pedestrian facilities, street furniture, trees, public spaces, or interactive kiosks with maps, visitor information, event schedules, and community information.

Task 1E: Improve the landscaping and physical appearance of the Square.

Task 1F: Install new waste and recycling bins that are more clearly distinct from each other and more aesthetically pleasing.

Task 1G: Rezone selected parcels to allow neighborhood-scale commercial nodes or legalize those that have been grandfathered.

20 thoughts on “Strategic Plan To-Do List: Commercial Character”

  1. Task 1B: I like tacky signs, especially in commercial and retail districts. Can you picture it now…

    Decatur, the Times Square of the South

  2. After years of reading Andisheh ask, “When is someone going to do something about all of these problems?”, we can finally answer, “over the next ten years, apparently.”

  3. I am particularly interested in innovations to the parking requirements for Decatur. It seems absurd that a city that prides itself on walkability has such onerous parking requirements for businesses within the walking zone. I know our city managers have been reasonable with variances, and have been creative with solutions, but just the requirement alone stifles walkable businesses.

      1. Basically Ponce, all through town, plus most of what’s inside the Commerce ring. All the places we’ve done downtown streetscape upgrades, plus the places further upgrades are planned, plus a few more gaps here and there. But mostly all the streets considered “downtown”.

      2. As to the stifling, I assume Todd’s referring to the fact that, even in our most walkable areas, we have parking requirements on par with what most auto-dependent, suburban cities have. For example, if an appropriate lot became available, a business like the Brick Store or Little Shop could not be built because the lot they’d likely be working with wouldn’t meet parking regs.

        Historically, the assumption was that, between walking, street parking and, perhaps, municipal lots, demand would be met. But that requires a recognition of complex system and most people just want a couple lines in the ordinance that spell out the number of spaces required on site. So Todd has a great point. We want to create a critical mass of pedestrians but we take much of the space that could be filled with commerce and art and joy and life and fun and beer and we use it for auto storage.

        1. And you don’t think Decatur is “auto-dependent”? Sure there are some businesses around the Square in buildings that have been here for almost a century that don’t have parking on their lots but they do generate parking demand and they are dependent on existing on-street parking and parking elsewhere in Decatur. Go to Google Maps and look at Decatur. It’s covered with parking for a reason and always has been.

          I’m still not understanding the stifling part. Is it stifling to require a business to provide parking for its customers? If they don’t who will provide the parking and where? Lack of convenient parking is a death nell for retail.

          Where is that critical mass of pedestrians coming from. Maybe someday there will be enough people living in the walkable zone or nearby to support all the businesses in that area but not anytime soon. Until that day, parking is important in the downtown area for both retail and office uses. You should ask the businesses if they would support adding more commercial space and no parking. I doubt they would.

          1. No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying that, during the Strategic Planning process, residents said they wanted to move away from an auto-dependent downtown and to further foster a pedestrian environment. That carries with it certain strategies that Todd was likely referring to. The issue is not that businesses shouldn’t have to meet the parking demands of their customer. It’s that they are required to do so on-site. If you want a walkable downtown, on-site parking for every business kills any chance of making it happen. You have to be more creative than that.

            It is not stifling to auto-dependent convenience business to provide onsite parking, and there are plenty of places in the metro area for them to serve their customers. But for businesses that would rather pull from a half to one mile radius than a 5 mile radius, and who subscribe to the idea that a truly walkable downtown is, in and of itself, a viable anchor, on-site parking requirements are stifling. Yes, parking needs to be managed but, in a good, walkable place, it does not need to be *required* on-site.

          2. Creating massive amounts of unecessary on-site parking (as Decatur code currently requires)by its very nature stifles walkability. In order for things to be walkable there needs to be density, storefronts need to be close to the street (parking needs to be behind buildings), and pedestrians need to visually be a be able to see an interesting streetscape to feel like distances are not so great. Think about how much further distances seem when there is nothing to see or do along the way. When we create space for parking, rather than other uses, walkability is ruined.

            Nobody is saying that we should necessarily reduce parking in downtown Decatur, or believe that suddenly people are going to ditch their cars and walk everywhere or take transit. But what we are saying is that the on site parking requirements that Decatur requires are not condusive to our values – hence all of the variances in recent years. What we are saying is that Decatur is different and we do not want our developement to fit suburban style planning that HDog seems to want. We want to create an urban environment and on-site parking requirement are not condusive to such.

            People do still need a place to park, but what we need to do is recognize the benefits of shared parking, public parking facilities, on-street parking, etc. when looking at parking requirements instead of just on-site parking. There is plenty of parking in Decatur, and we can maintain our small town feel even with new development, so long as we are creative about parking requirements and utilizing the massive amount of parking we already have in Decatur.

  4. Re all references to ordinances, what’s the point? The ordinances are ignored at the whim of the City administration. When, re the late El Tesoro, I mentioned that the ordinances in plain English forbid multi-barred neon signs and outside beverage service I was told in effect “if we enforce the ordinances against them, why, we’d have to enforce them everywhere.”

    Re “walkability” I’m reminded of Lester Maddox who said that the first step to improving prison conditions was to get a better class of prisoner. Decatur has such a great reputation for walkability that I’ve nearly creamed a bassinet being wheeled through a red light (their way) at an intersection. This is really a problem at Church St. and the MARTA station. We need a better class of walkers.

    1. Paul, your example seems to illustrate an instance where the city is looking the other way because the ordinance is out of sync with what residents want. Doesn’t that seem like a good reason to update our regs? So they reflect our values?

  5. In the downtown streetscape, trees create a sense of place and have been proven to boost commerce by as much as 20% yet they are still planted using methods of the 1950s which create longterm sidewalk infrastructure problems and smaller unhealthy trees. Invest up front, do it right by creating more root space in quality soil using latest techniques for more canopy, tree diversity, and longer lasting healthy trees, That is creating a legacy for future Decturites today. It does require an investment up front but will lower long term costs.

    1. If this is sound advice arboreally, I hope the City considers it. I agree completely that trees make a huge difference in the ambience of a downtown–I’m thinking of all the palms on almost every street and yard in Los Angeles. Even run-down areas have an exotic feel to them. Or stately New England towns (which were even more stately before all the elms were killed with blight).

  6. I have read the plan in more depth and saw that the word “tree” was mentioned 9 times, that is only one less than “parking”! Most impressive is task 13A: Create an urban forest management plan to assess Decatur’sexisting tree canopy, recommend strategies for protection, maintenance. And for a cherry on top I have heard the City was recently appointed a “Tree City USA” designation.
    The process does work! Great job Decatur.

  7. I’d be happy to keep my car out of the central commercial area if there were some low-cost place to put it. I live over 2 miles from the square but try to patronize local businesses. Sometimes this is impossible because there is no place to park. If I’m lucky, there may be a meter somewhere and I can have lunch or do my shopping for only $2.00 worth of quarters – but of course there is that time limit on the meter.

    1. Not sure what time of day your are going downtown, but the Courthouse and/or county office parking lots are always free after 5PM and on weekends.

      Those are thousands of unused spots right there.

  8. Need to fill in the gaps along Church Street to link the square with other potential commercial areas. The ugly pay parking lot just south of Johnny’s is a particular problem. Anyone know what used to be there and what the city could do to encourage redevelopment of that lot?

    1. That parking lot has been there since the 40’s. I’m not sure what was there before that. It was the parking lot for the Belk Gallant department store that is now occupied by Eddies Attic, Several Dancers Core and DeKalb Workforce. That store was unique in that it had 3 entrances, one on N. McDonough below Eddies Attic, one on Sycamore where Several Dancers Core is now and one from the parking lot. It had 2 “urban” sidewalk storefronts and one “suburban” parking lot storefront. I think the store closed in the early 70’s. The building and lot is owned by Gwinnett Industries.

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