In the News...Designers propose 20-year building plan for downtown Mount Airy

Published Sep 28, 2018
Sep 28, 2018

The Frederick News-Post

By: Samantha Hogan

The proposed redesign of downtown Mount Airy is bold, but initial reactions Thursday night were positive.

Design Collective, the firm hired by Mount Airy to provide a comprehensive plan to revitalize its historic downtown, presented metrics on the parking, retail and households needed to create a thriving community gathering place.

“We don’t want to lose sight that the reason why we create places is for people to inhabit them and enjoy them,” said Cecily Bedwell, principal planner and urban designer for Design Collective, as she dove into her presentation Thursday.

The complete build-out — which includes infill development downtown, a connection between Main Street and Md. 27 via the completion of Center Street and the development of the land around it — is estimated to take at least 20 years.

“Conceptually, I like the ideas for a lot of the areas in town,” said Councilman Jason Poirier, after the presentation. “I think — big picture — it’s going to take a long time to get what they think our end product is.”

It will be up to the mayor and Town Council to decide where to focus its attention and money first.

Repurposing the train museum’s parking lot into a community plaza is one project the town may be able to tackle early on, Poirier said.

Design Collective recommended thinning the overgrown trees between Center Street and the lot, defining the entrance to Rails to Trails — which is a popular walking trail — and planting grass with a pavilion or stage as the focal point for arts and events.

Currently, the Mount Airy Farmers Market is held on the parking lot. Market manager Alice Settle-Raskin attended the presentation and said she liked the plaza concept, and she would be happy to have the market half on grass and half on the remaining pavement.

“Whenever we create a plaza, it gets filled up immediately,” Councilman Larry Hushour said.

When the town resurfaced the lot with asphalt this year, it was enough for the farmers market to move back to the location from the municipal lot, he said.

The goal of the plaza would be to create an outdoor space people can gather to attract more people downtown to shop and eat, Bedwell said.

“I think people like sitting outside, eating food, listening to music and enjoying the arts,” Hushour said.

Staying downtown
Right now, the problem with visiting downtown is parking.

An analysis of parking shows ample spots, but they are not always in accessible locations for seniors or those in wheelchairs or with strollers. It will take time to address these concerns, but adding street-level parking during other projects was one of Design Collective’s solutions.

On-street parking can be added to Main Street if a major — and controversial — project is completed: tearing down the Flat Iron Building.

The Flat Iron is structurally unsound, Bedwell said. For this reason, Design Collective could not recommend that it be left as is or lifted-and-shifted to a new location, she said.

Design Collective recommends instead that the town tear down the building, build retaining walls and stairs for pedestrians to better access the municipal parking lot above, and then allow a builder to construct a new building on a new footprint further from the road with retail space on the ground level.

If completed, the vision would close Park Avenue’s connection to Main Street, add six on-street parking spots, make the sidewalk safer for pedestrians and add new retail space to downtown as well as potential outdoor dining space for its neighbor, which is currently occupied by Concetta’s Main Street Bistro.

The Flat Iron project feeds into Bedwell’s two main recommendations:

  1. First, do not fixate on a lack of parking, because healthy main streets do not have an abundance of parking.
  2. Second, begin shifting the downtown into active storefront — with shops and restaurants — rather than passive businesses, such as office space.

National data suggests downtowns should have 10 percent or less of their square footage devoted to office space, Bedwell said. Mount Airy now has 37 percent tied up in offices.

She recommended trying to notch offices down to 17 percent to increase retail and restaurants by 10 percent each. To support this build-out, the town will also need to consider more homes and eventually deck parking downtown.

Center Street expansion
The final piece of the puzzle consists of Center Street and the Beck Property, an approximately 35.7-acre undeveloped parcel adjacent to Watkins Park and Md. 27.

Developer Victor Kazanjian has the Beck Property under a contract purchasing agreement and plans to develop the land if the town passes a mixed-use zoning ordinance. The ordinance was shelved while Mount Airy went through the downtown planning process, which culminated in Thursday’s meeting.

Kazanjian attended the presentation and liked some of Design Collective’s proposed ideas, though it’s not exactly what his development team envisions.

Design Collective proposed a mixed-use development with single-family houses blending from existing residential neighborhoods into town houses and finally apartments as it moves closer to the heart of the development. There would be stores and a location for a new police station on Center Street, which would connect Main Street and Md. 27.

Councilman Bob King was not pleased with the volume of houses proposed in the development of the Beck Property. He would prefer more retail space.

Poirier was pleased with the proposed location of the police station, and King said building the road between the two stub ends of Center Street could help the town get the station. Poirier cautioned, however, that there were water and sewer costs not mentioned on Thursday that must still be considered.

“A lot of it’s going to be expensive. ... We have a lot of money in the bank right now, but we don’t want to spend a lot of money,” King said.

Kazanjian said for him to move forward, the town needs to be comfortable with Design Collective’s vision and then the town needs to pass a mixed-use zoning ordinance.

“The town has to feel good about it ... and then they need to give us a way to do it,” Kazanjian said.

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