- Mike Rutledge Staff Writer
The newly released draft of Middletown’s “Downtown Strategic Plan” contains many suggestions for how the city can upgrade its core area.
Most of the ideas put forward in the plan by Columbus-based OHM Advisors are general ideas that can prompt further refinement in the future, including possible locations for commercial and residential development along the Great Miami River and creating a dog park on vacant land downtown.
City Council, which received the report and a presentation last week, has been encouraged to carefully read the 92-page document, and ultimately consider adopting all or part of it as a working guide for city government moving forward, including, City Manager Doug Adkins said, in the 2018 budget.
The overall vision statement OHM Advisors developed for the downtown was this: “Downtown Middletown: The place where our past, present, and future come together to represent the best of who we are and the best of what we can do.”
Among the many suggestions are:
- Creating a development area close to the Great Miami River in a currently empty 21-acre area of land between Carmody Boulevard, Water Street, Central Avenue and 2nd Avenue, after working with environmental regulators about how much of that land is allowed to be developed;
- Also developing the areas along Broad Street; and the area between Manchester and Vail avenues;
- Promoting downtown housing, which will in turn attract more downtown businesses;
- Improving streetscapes with street furniture such as benches and bike racks shaped like the “M” in the city’s logo;
- Improving traffic flow within the downtown area, and between Interstate 75 and the downtown, such as via Grand Avenue or Central Avenue;
- Creating monument-like gateways to the downtown area;
- Creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown, with buildings closer to the streets and street-level storefronts and offices that people can see into;
- Creating a downtown dog park, because in Ohio, 40 percent of households have pets, while only 33 percent have children (a children’s park also would be good, the report states);
- Encouraging downtown buildings that are more than one story tall;
- Providing a “spectrum of housing” so residents and families can remain in the city as their housing needs change over time;
- Developing a hotel and conference center downtown;
- Establishing a “flex space” for concerts, food trucks and events;
- Create more murals “that showcase the vibrant arts community in Middletown”;
- Beautifying the riverfront and creating more recreational programs along the river. Also, offering diverse recreational activities, “such as tennis, golf, kayaking”;
- Better connecting Smith Park with downtown, because the park is an asset, “yet there is not a welcoming way to travel on foot from Smith Park to the downtown”;
- Better linking the Great Miami Recreational Trail with key areas of the downtown, including Smith Park and the commercial core;
- Marketing Middletown as an “adventureland,” and highlighting activities on the river and at the airport;
- Creating more activities, such a downtown scavenger hunt; community gardens; urban games; loaner bikes; and urban Yoga;
- Using code enforcement to improve maintenance issue downtown, particularly in high-visibility areas;
- Communicating with such development agencies as Cincinnati’s 3CDC, Hamilton’s non-profit CORE Fund and Northern Kentucky’s Catalytic fund to learn about the “best practices” they have used to foster growth.
Justin Robbins, of OHM, said the plan is the result of meeting with Middletown resident and others “to really find out what they wanted to see happen in the downtown.”
“The result is something that hopefully is a document that everybody can take part in and be involved in,” Robbins said. The private, public and non-profit sectors all can help make the ideas happen, he said, because “there’s no one entity that can do what needs to be done in a historic downtown such as Middletown.”
“You guys have a fantastic downtown here … and I can see a lot of good things happening within this district,” Robbins added.
Some parts of the plan can be implemented immediately, such as city government “drawing a line in the sand that says that we’re going to make sure the historic-district buildings are protected, and that people are aware of that, code enforcement’s aware of that, planners are aware of that.”
Other aspects will take longer, he added.
Downtown Middletown Inc. about a year and a half ago realized a vision was needed, said its executive director, Mallory Greenham. The city provided half of the plan’s approximately $40,000 costs, with DMI soliciting the rest, she said.
“It is important to note that the concepts don’t have to be adopted as designed, but are intended to spur conversation around what is realistic and appropriate for different sites,” the plan states.
According to the plan, nearly 19,000 people within 7,617 households live within a five-minute drive from the intersection of Verity and Central avenues. The median age of those people is 35.1 years old, with a median household income of $28,821, and an unemployment rate of 13.2 percent. Within that same area there are 650 businesses with 6,179 employees.
Among other observations the plan offered were:
- “Vacant land is likewise a burden and an opportunity to the future of a downtown. While in its present state, vacant land is not typically adding to the character of a place, it does represent a chance for additional development in land that is currently underutilized.”
- The report noted a simultaneous study of downtown market conditions by the Danter Company found a potential need for 316 additional housing units through 2021, including 96 apartments above existing storefronts; 176 newly-constructed multi-family units; and 44 student housing units, with 152 beds (a mix of 2- and 4-bedroom units).
- According to public input, “Downtown has a poor reputation,” the area lacks attractions, and the area also lacks consistent branding and signs that help people find their way around.
- “Bars and restaurants are the number one reason survey respondents visit Downtown.”
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Here are 14 Plan Principles offered by Middletown’s Downtown Strategic Plan:
Under the category of “Live Well”…
- Strengthen public places.
- Promote new downtown housing.
- Rehab existing upper-story spaces into residences and offices.
Under the category of “Move Safely”…
- Establish safe bicycle connections.
- Improve navigation into and within the downtown.
- Ensure pedestrian “comfort and safety.”
In the “Attract Strategically” category …
- Make the downtown a unique event destination.
- Emphasize gateways into the downtown district.
- Market Middletown’s regional location.
- Promote local businesses downtown.
Under the “Grow Smart” cagetory …
- Leverage the riverfront for new development.
- Promote new high-quality development.
- Protect the historic character of the architecture and landmarks.
- Promote establishment of a downtown hotel.