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Local architects claim streetscape lacks aesthetics

Recent council decisions favor parking over beauty

DIXON – The first plans for the downtown streetscape project were unveiled at City Hall in January, and work is expected to begin this month.

But two local architects still are critical of the project.

John McLane and Dean Sheaffer, who had submitted proposed designs for the streetscape and done work with KSB Hospital or downtown, say that because no landscape architect was the lead professional on the project, the city missed out on incorporating design elements, signage and greenspace into the $5.7 million project.

The city contracted Wendler Engineering Services Inc. and Willett, Hofmann & Associates, for a combined $320,930, to do engineering work and planning for the project.

The Dixon-based firms divided the project in half.

Wendler took the west side, which includes: Peoria Avenue from River Street to Third Street; First Street from Highland Avenue to Hennepin Avenue; and portions of Second Street between Highland Avenue and Hennepin Avenue.

Willett Hofmann took the west side, which includes First Street from Hennepin Avenue to Crawford Avenue, and Ottawa Avenue from River Street to Second Street.

In 2010, the city did a streetscape project on part of Hennepin Avenue.

The engineering firms were instructed to use general design guidelines from that earlier project as they worked on this year’s streetscape project, said Wendler’s Scott Brown, who is leading the project for his firm’s portion.

Brown said that aesthetic elements and greenspace were incorporated into the design where available, but he added that they were “very restricted” in what they could do because of space available downtown.

Wendlet and Willett Hofmann brought in a Sterling landscape architect, Alan Skoog, of Skoog Landscape & Design, as part of the design team, Brown said.

McLane and Sheaffer feel that opportunities were missed.

“Engineers have zero aesthetic design training,” McLane said last week. “And by looking at things that they’ve done, that are so basic, so wrong from the get-go, there’s just no understanding of seating or aesthetics or space required for different things, and what things are going to look like when they’re done.”

McLane had helped to design landscaping and property for Town Square Centre, which houses some KSB offices.

First Street parking

The Dixon City Council recently decided that the south side of First Street, between Hennepin Avenue and Galena Avenue, which was part of McLane’s design, should be converted from parallel parking to all diagonal parking.

The original plan for that block, which was done by Willett Hofmann’s Jeff Reis, included a combination of parallel and diagonal parking.

The design has since changed several times, Reis said, including most recently when he was directed by the City Council, although not unanimously, to go with all diagonal parking.

Commissioner Jeff Kuhn said the decision wasn’t strictly about creating more parking downtown, but creating the right kind of parking downtown.

After speaking with nearly 100 residents, Kuhn said he felt people wanted diagonal parking, which is easier than parallel parking.

“People don’t like to parallel park,” he said. “This was the only part of the streetscape that could do [diagonal parking].”

By going with diagonal parking, the city will gain parking spaces on that block – an increase from 10 to 19 – but have to narrow the sidewalks and eliminate landscaping.

The change will also be cheaper for the city – $201,300 for all parallel parking compared to $162,300 for all diagonal parking.

“I’m listening to the people, and this is what they want,” Kuhn said. “And anytime I can save some money, I’m all for it.”

Mayor Jim Burke and Commissioner Colleen Brechon were the City Council members who opposed all diagonal parking.

Burke said he had hoped that block could be turned into a “garden spot” in downtown Dixon with a variety of landscaping, adding that he wanted it to have the same feel as the riverfront.

Despite his vision for that section of First Street, Burke said the overall streetscape plan has met his expectations for landscaping and aesthetics.

“I think generally it has,” Burke said. “But it’s really just, I cannot get over it about that 100 block [of First Street] bordering the KSB Medical Group. I just cannot get over it.”

Burke has said on several occasions that downtown has no parking problem and that he’s never heard a complaint about a lack of parking.

Signage and historical markers

In June, the City Council voted 3-2 against a proposal from Sheaffer to do a study and a report on how the city’s history could be incorporated into the design of future downtown projects.

Sheaffer’s study would have cost the city $24,000, but he says it would have established a road map for engineers to honor anything found to be historically significant and worthy of preservation or presentation.

That’s a step that should have been done before the engineers designed the plans, Sheaffer said last week, and should be more involved than a few meetings between the streetscape engineers and the Dixon Historic Preservation Commission, which is the process currently being used.

The historical markers and signage will come after the initial streetscape work, Reis said, because they’re more of a specialty project. The engineers will continue to meet with the preservation commission, of which McLane is a member, to establish a list of historical elements.

Because downtown Dixon is a historic district, Sheaffer said, the work should have been done before, “to integrate the signage and have an overall program – colorful signs or historic looking signs, or something like that.”

John Dixon statue

Brown made two presentations to the City Council in April about designs for the northwest corner of the intersection of First Street and Peoria Avenue. The designs were ways to incorporate a proposed John Dixon statue, which had once been considered for the southeast corner of First Street and Hennepin Avenue.

It was Brown’s idea to move the statue to the west side of downtown, he said, which would allow for significantly more landscaping and space.

On May 5, the City Council decided to go with a design that allowed for more parking in the lot and some landscaping, calling it a compromise. The decision, however, wasn’t unanimous.

Based on the suggestion of the sculptor and the Historic Preservation Commission, Brown recommended a larger design, which would call for the same number of spots as the current parking lot.

McLane and Sheaffer said the design chosen during the City Council meeting, which was meant to give Brown direction for a final design, was too small and lacked aesthetics and adequate landscaping, things that would have been avoided, had a landscape architect been the lead professional.

Brown defended the design and aesthetics of the downtown, saying the engineers have tried to include elements proposed by residents, Dixon Main Street, and the City Council.

“The actual corridor through downtown is pretty limited,” Brown said. “We tried to enhance the downtown user experience. There are aspects that will be added later on as the budget allows.”

Recent City Council decisions about the two sections of the downtown streetscape project haven’t been unanimous, and votes have fallen on either the side of beautification and functionality.

“It’s a hard decision, and it’s an expensive project,” Reis said. “... It’s tough, and I think that’s why it’s taken several meetings.”

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