New Albany is being called one of the best emerging tourism destinations in Mississippi. “We are being looked at and just need a hot spot to carry it home,” Community Development Director Billye Jean Stroud said.
Toward that end, the city has a new comprehensive plan and is working on river, park and retirement community plans as well.
Thursday, some residents got a preliminary look at a complementary plan designed to improve connectivity among the city’s key features, improving tourism and increasing private investment as well.
New Albany has been selected as part of the Mississippi Main Street Envision program with the project name Connect: New Albany.
With Mississippi Heritage Hills grant support, Bob Barber and the Orion Planning and Design group are preparing a plan that will basically “help people move around in New Albany.”
Barber said his group spent about 18 hours “to identify public facilities to catalyze possible spillover effects.”
Their primary focus is making downtown more pedestrian-friendly and better connecting the city’s most attractive areas for walkers and bikers.
Barber, whose group prepared the New Albany NEXT comprehensive plan, noted that the community already has done extensive planning but now it is time to move beyond that to what he referred to as New Albany NEXT Level.
One key premise Barber referred to is that historic downtown New Albany is “at capacity.”
In other words, the relatively small historic downtown area is out of space for growth.
They calculate that the downtown area has about 320,000 square feet of building space – about the equivalent of one and one-half Wal-Marts, he said. We have about 120,000 square feet in upper floors and 15 upper floor units.
“The downtown historic district is essentially at capacity. You need more,” he said.
Barber said there has been “tons of thought about mobility. Lots of discussion about the park area, some comments about Carter Avenue.”
The group, in an intensive process, selected three core emphases for the plan, he said.
One is the downtown area itself. Another is connectivity and the third what he referred to as “catalyst sites.”
They said they learned downtown has parking problems concerning capacity and design (parking spaces are marked at an awkward angle), lack of room for pedestrians, areas that are not American Disability Act accessible and other concerns.
Recommendations include widening sidewalks to allow more room for walking, benches, trees, even outdoor cafes. They want to keep angle parking, but with an angle that makes it easier to see when backing out. Pinch points would keep traffic down to a slower, safer speed and more crosswalks and other pedestrian safety features would be added.
They want to connect peripheral parking areas to downtown, which includes closing the two alleys to through traffic and making them at least in part pedestrian walkways (they would have to remain partly open for business staff and people who live in upstairs apartments).
A part of previous plans has always been to extend walking and biking paths to key points in the city, and this is no exception with the connectivity core emphasis.
They want to have marked and protected lanes connecting the park area to downtown, but go further. Part of the path would go from the Tanglefoot Plaza trailhead up Railroad Avenue and turn up Cleveland Street to the museum. This might open up development across the railroad tracks as well.
Another part would include B. F. Ford School, based on efforts to preserve and renovate it as well as finding new uses.
The park and BNA Bank Park areas would be tied together better and a path through the sportsplex beside the highway would lead to the retail areas on Park Plaza Drive and, ultimately, the hotels on Hwy. 30 West.
Critical to the path system would be extensive use of wayfinding signage. They commented that people from out of town already have trouble finding features they are looking for here and multiple signs indicating direction, distance and other features are necessary.
Barber identified three catalyst sites: B. F. Ford School, the former Fred’s building and the present wastewater treatment facility that is about to be mostly phased out.
“The school has many possible uses,” he said. “Because you are at capacity, maybe the Fred’s building could be made into an interpretive center. There could be apartments upstairs.”
They recommended considering converting the wastewater plant area into an upscale RV park, but learned that part of the present facility will be kept operational for emergency use, so that option may be off the table.
Also mentioned in passing was a recommendation to expand the downtown historic district northward.
In questions, Stroud asked about the Fred’s building recommendation.
The group was against it becoming a municipal building on grounds that it is one of the first buildings people see when they enter downtown from the west and a bunch of police cars wouldn’t give the best impression. They also cited the city’s being at capacity and that the building could be better used for event space, upstairs apartments or the interpretive center (However, if the Fred’s building is converted for utility and police use, the police cars would be essentially hidden on the east side of the building toward the rear, only visible from directly in front of the area).
Barber had an extensive PowerPoint presentation but said it was quickly done and all the information they gathered plus their ideas need to be vetted before being compiled into a formal plan.
That plan will be given to Main Street Manager Billye Jean Stroud and Barber said it should be ready by the end of October.
The plan will include implementation of the recommendations, funding possibilities, development policy and risk mitigation.
A further factor will be potential changes in city zoning. In connection with preparation of the comprehensive plan, the city commissioned Barber and his group to update zoning ordinances to make them more comprehensive and user-friendly. Barber said those plans are ready.
“New Albany is really exciting,” Barber said. “It’s just a top-shelf city.”
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