Building a friendlier downtown: Steamboat Springs City Council weighs urban renewal plan |

Building a friendlier downtown: Steamboat Springs City Council weighs urban renewal plan

A sketch shows what Yampa Street could look like with a promenade. Visions for additional sidewalks and infrastructure on Yampa date back at least three decades.

The makeover has been dreamed up and sketched out for decades.

Tucked deep inside a drawer in Steamboat Springs City Hall, there are dusty downtown redevelopment plans that were drafted four years before Ronald Reagan left the White House.

The 1984 Yampa River Corridor Master Plan called for complete sidewalks, trees and bike racks and a riverside path all along what has since become a popular and vibrant downtown roadway.

The ribbon style bike racks were to be ordered from New York.

Planners recommended that decorative, antique street lamps from Russellville, Arkansas, be installed.

Eight-foot long benches modeled after ones made in Kalamazoo, Michigan, were also part of the vision.

But nearly 31 years later, many of the plans to make Yampa and other downtown streets more pedestrian friendly and attractive have largely gone unrealized.

That will likely start to change next year, when downtown Steamboat could start to see its biggest makeover since Lincoln Avenue was torn up and rebuilt a few years ago.

Under a broad redevelopment proposal that has earned initial support from the Steamboat Springs City Council, visitors to the downtown commercial district would see new sidewalks, trees and better pedestrian lighting on several city blocks along with a new promenade on the riverside portion of Yampa Street.

Intersections on Yampa could be raised to slow down cars, and new public restrooms could be installed in Eagle Scout and Little Toots Park.

City planners ultimately envision an entire downtown commercial district that is friendlier, more walkable and better connected.

“We want to create a safe, attractive and consistent streetscape downtown,” Planning Director Tyler Gibbs said Monday at his desk that is covered with a few thick binders of downtown plans and meticulous streetscape designs that have been crafted through the years.

In all, the city is proposing a roster of projects worth $10.3 million that aim to make the downtown corridor a more attractive place to visit.

City staff, members of the council and local business leaders in the downtown district believe the improvements will bring more people downtown and spur more private investment.

The council last week expressed support for the project list and resolved to make a significant investment in downtown.

Some members said they don’t want to wait another 30 years to see the projects completed.

But the next major decision the council will make this spring will be the biggest one for the project, and one city councils before them have wrestled with again and again.

How should we fund this vision for downtown, and which projects should we start first?

Choosing the tool

The City Council last week selected tax increment financing as its most preferred potential funding source for downtown improvements.

Several municipalities across the state, including Steamboat, have formed urban renewal authorities and used the mechanism in major redevelopment projects.

But not all cities use it the same way.

While some cities have used URAs to enable a specific development project like a shopping mall to get off the ground, Steamboat is proposing to use it to cover basic infrastructure throughout the entire downtown corridor.

The tool ultimately takes increases in property and sales tax revenue that are attributable to new development in an urban renewal area and dedicates that money to improvement projects for up to 25 years.

Cities make improvements and pay for them with the additional tax revenue that the improvements helped to generate.

Downtown Golden was able to dramatically improve its downtown corridor with this tool from 1989 to 2014.

The Front Range community built new sidewalks and even used TIF revenue to help local business owners develop websites.

In downtown Steamboat, city officials are proposing to use a TIF to fund about $7.9 million worth of infrastructure improvements.

The rest of the funding for Steamboat’s $10.3 million project list would come from grants and franchise fees that the city can use to underground utilities like power lines.

Still looming in the funding decision is strong opposition to the TIF plan from the Steamboat Springs School District, Routt County and some other taxing entities.

They see the need for the improvements but argue the use of property tax revenue in an urban renewal plan will negatively impact them and their revenue streams.

City officials and council members counter that the improvements lead to increased tax revenue and benefit all taxing entities.

Mainstreet Steamboat Springs Manager Tracy Barnett understands the council still has to iron out the funding for the projects and debate whether the entire project can be afforded right now, but she’s excited nonetheless.

Years in waiting

It’s downtown’s turn, Barnett said emphatically in her downtown office on a recent winter day.

Barnett knows that plans and visions for improving Lincoln Avenue, Yampa and Oak streets have sat on shelves for decades.

She said last week that she’s encouraged by the City Council’s recent resolve to invest in basic infrastructure in the city’s commercial center.

“I’m just glad it’s come to the forefront,” Barnett said. “The focus has been on the (base of the) ski area for a long time, and it needed it. It needed a lot of help.

“But downtown needs infrastructure as well as anything,” Barnett continued. “It’s our commercial core. It’s where we all started. There’s a lot of things aging and a lot of maintenance deferred because of the economy.”

Community members who have supported the use of tax increment financing downtown describe a busy commercial corridor that is popular, but unsafe, in places.

Sidewalks suddenly end, and people often have to push strollers in Oak Street.

In the last two years, the council has been so concerned about safety issues on Yampa Street that it invested in temporary safety improvements that included overhead lights and curb lines that consist of rubber curb stops commonly found in parking lots.

City officials say the downtown investment plan would create permanent, more attractive solutions to increase pedestrian safety and walkability.

Gibbs said the projects are about more than making downtown “prettier.”

He and others see the improvements as an economic development strategy.

“We can’t promise these improvements will lead to bigger sales receipts downtown,” Gibbs said. “But I think they will bring more people downtown.”

Much of the visioning for the projects has already been done with the help of the community.

Planning ahead

For at least the last three decades, planning directors, city councils and community members in Steamboat Springs have dreamed of ways to make downtown more attractive and pedestrian friendly.

The 1984 master plan for Yampa Street went as far as to plot out where the bike racks, benches, new trees and lights would go.

“Tree-lined walkways, brick pavers and grassy areas define the spaces that people may explore and enjoy,” reads the plan. “Decorative lighting, river rock accents and pedestrian separation from vehicular traffic lends a special ambience to the area.”

A riverwalk called for in the plan was converted to sidewalks and other basic infrastructure.

Fast forward to 2007, and community members weighed in on what they thought improved streetscapes should look like and how the city should better connect Lincoln Avenue, Yampa and Oak streets.

The result was the Steamboat Springs Downtown Design Guidelines — a set of plans adopted by City Council in 2009.

The city paid the Britina Design Group $439,000 to draft the plans that essentially plot out what each street should look like with additional trees, sidewalks, bike racks and lighting.

Each street would have its own character, with the streetscape on Oak taking on a greener, more landscaped appearance, and the streetscape on Yampa becoming more conducive to festivals and pedestrian traffic.

The city also commissioned a traffic study to determine if the improvements were practical.

Gibbs said Monday the adopted streetscape designs will guide the city’s list of proposed projects, but some aspects of the plans could be modified to make installing the streetscape more practical and less expensive.

Council member Walter Magill weighed in last week and said he doesn’t think all of the additional sidewalks need trees on them.

And for the promenade on Yampa Street, for example, the city envisions a brick path that snakes alongside a softer surface of crusher fines. It could also tie into existing sidewalks and infrastructure on the street so nothing would have to be ripped up and replaced.

With the projects on the table and the potential funding source identified, council is poised to debate whether or not it can afford to pull the trigger on the friendlier downtown right now.

Can we afford it?

Before accepting the list of proposed downtown projects last week, some council members expressed concern about the multi-million dollar price tag.

“I think that we are jumping a little too far,” Sonja Macys said before voting with Scott Ford not to accept the list of projects.

Both council members wanted to continue discussing the scope of the projects and consider other funding sources and timelines for them.

“I think the councils prior to this group today prided themselves on being fiscally conservative and socking away money, and now we are getting ready to pull the trigger on 17ish million worth of projects,” Macys continued.

The extra $7 million Macys was referring to is part of the price tag of a new police station.

“If we’re going to move forward with these large investments, we’re going to have to make some choices,” Macys said.

She said she felt the projects are needed and worthwhile, but “I don’t think we can do 100 percent of downtown right now and a police station.”

Other council members had a different view.

Tony Connell noted the visions for downtown have been ongoing now for 30 years, and the work would provide an immediate return on investment.

“There isn’t anything we can do faster to help this community,” Connell said. “We also have to recognize we have a skier mountain with skier days that are flat or declining.”

He said improving downtown would give visitors “that second great place that differentiates us from other ski areas and places to visit.

“I think not doing this is our biggest risk, because we’re not creating a great place to visit,” Connell said.

The council is scheduled to continue discussing and debating the proposed downtown improvement plan on April 28.

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