East Side Gateway planning starts in earnest

A project as extensive as the East Side Gateway Renaissance project in Warren is going to take time and cooperation.

And probably some extra meetings.

The first of those extra meetings was held Monday night as the city’s Planning Commission met for a work session at the Eagles Club…on the east side of town.

City Planner David Hildebrand said the focus of the proposed project stretches from the Conewango Creek to the Glade Bridge. For planning purposes, he proposed dividing that section of the city into three sectors with the first from the Glade Bridge to Marion Street, the second from Marion Street to Irvine Street and the third from Irvine Street to the Conewango Creek.

“I think dividing it into threes like that makes it more manageable,” said Hildebrand, who said the project will be a joint effort of the Planning Commission, Street Landscape Committee, Redevelopment Authority and Blighted Property Review Committee.

“All those groups are looking at ways of improving the city,” he said.

With the first sector the Glade Bridge to Marion Street Hildebrand said, “One of the first things we would talk about would be to basically open up the facade program… dressing up some of the properties.”

Hildebrand noted that program has been “quite successful for several years in the downtown” and added some of the businesses on the east side have undertaken facade work of their own volition in recent months.

He acknowledged that the “business corridor has been (left) there to work itself…. We are looking for a way of assisting.”

The City has loan funding available for facade work, and the program previously in place in the downtown had a limit of $5,000 per business.

“(We are) looking to have it an extremely low-interest (loan), a point or two,” said Hildebrand, “to keep the funding going back into the program…. It is an ongoing growing fund, which is good.”

Commission member Bob Dilks asked if “part of this endeavor would be to try to frame a cohesive look… cohesive idea,” encouraging the facades to fit together.

Chairman Don Nelson said an “excellent example” of such an effort is on Second Avenue. “The buildings are not identical (but they) do flow together. Certain criteria were followed there. (It) does certainly build the character of the area. (I) think we can do that in this end of town.”

City Manager Nancy Freenock noted that $5,000 does not go very far on a building project so she proposed a maximum of $10,000 in city loans with a $5,000 match from the business and $2,500 forgiven by the city if the renovations are completed and the loan is paid back within five years.

“I think that’s borderline aggressive, yet responsibly so,” Dilks said.

“The key word is incentive,” Nelson said. “Is that enough motivation to get someone off the mark? We need to incentivize people, but we do need some criteria.”

Hildebrand said he will develop guidelines for the facade program and bring them to a future meeting of the commission.

Looking specifically at the first sector, the commission also discussed whether it would be possible to enhance the appearance of the Glade Bridge itself. “This is very industrial. It is very functional,” said Nelson. “Something we could absolutely look into. Maybe it is lighting. Maybe it is shrubbery. Maybe it is trees.”

Hildebrand said the Street Landscape Committee has found funding for trees, and he said they are “targeting” the area behind sidewalks as a potential location. He suggested that vegetation or fencing, specifically in the heavy industry area of the refinery could “soften it up.”

“We’re not talking about mandating anything for everybody,” said Dilks.

“That is correct,” said Hildebrand.

“I think it is important to state out loud that it is not a mandate,” Dilks added. “(We want to) make it worth folks’ while to be a part of.”

“(The) key word is opportunity,” said Nelson. “What kind of incentive can we give to United (Refining Company) and elsewhere?”

He said that incentive does not necessarily mean funding. He said the commission is “trying to serve as a catalyst to get people to hop on board. Sometimes it is just awareness.”

Dilks suggested that one possibility could be to partner with United Refining on a welcome sign to the city near the Glade Bridge.

Nelson proposed a town hall meeting for all those interested in this project “as a kick-off to get people excited about the opportunities.”

“Some of the stretches will have more commercial possibilities than others,” said Hildebrand. “Because there are so many components we can work with to bring some new life in the area, I think the facade is a good starting point, then go back to some of these other items as we move along.”

He said he would “at some point” like to bring in east side businesses to the discussion.

“This is a really, really good start,” Nelson said. “There is a whole lot more businesses down there than there used to be. We have a really good base to build on. It is just a mixed bag (of uses) and I think that is the biggest challenge.”

The commission decided to work on this project during its regular monthly meetings when the agenda affords time before considering supplemental meetings. Dilks said he is willing to meet more often if more meetings are needed to move the project along.