When the dust settled after the changing of the guard at the Civic Center on Monday night, the Merced City Council — with three new members and a new mayor — got down to business.
The business of downtown that is.
“In the next two years we are going to see a lot of City Council action on the downtown,” said newly sworn-in Mayor Matthew Serratto. “I think the council can take what is being done and really take it to the next level. This time instead of just attracting the private investment, now we get to do the city work. That’s the fun stuff. We can really kind of reshape downtown and make it into something special. We have an opportunity. I think Merced can have the best downtown in the valley within five years.”
Mayor Serratto’s bold, optimistic words came as city staff presented leaders with a pilot program proposal to create a one-way traffic flow on Main Street between K and M, and add diagonal parking to allow for at least 56 more spaces to park vehicles.
The idea, according to officials and leaders at City Hall, has been more than a year in the making as the city’s Downtown Subcommittee has studied successful downtowns in other cities, and city staff has met with downtown merchants and neighborhood groups.
Economic Development Director Frank Quintero said his team had initially floated the idea of closing off parts of Main Street to help create outdoor dining options for struggling businesses during the pandemic, and promote easier pickup and delivery sights. But he said a large majority of merchants in a focus group were more interested in additional parking with time limits to get more customers in and out.
“We do have a high demand for parking with the big three projects [The Tioga, The Mainzer and the El Capitan Hotel] in the downtown area, along with Bitwise coming into town, the potential brewery coming into town, and new businesses moving into the 400 block,” Quintero explained.
He said the pilot program would run anywhere from three weeks to three months depending on how leaders and residents reacted to it. The city would use temporary road striping that can be easily removed.
The City Council unanimously agreed to kickstart the pilot program and directed staff to come up with a refined plan and the necessary ordinance language the city manager needs to get things rolling.
Here’s what they decided to focus on so far:
- One-way traffic, going west to east on Main Street, from M to K streets. And one-way traffic going north to south on Canal Street.
- Diagonal parking on both sides of street in the test area.
- Parking time limits would be 4 hours in some spots, and 30 to 15 minutes in others.
- No parking citations during the pilot program.
- Speed limit may be reduced down to 15 mph.
- After program is developed, wait two to three months to implement it.
“Currently, Main Street is a race track,” commented Councilman Kevin Blake. “I’m a huge advocate for one-way traffic downtown. … If [the pilot program] is horrible, and it sucks, and we all hate it, than we can tear the tape off and go back to the way it was.”
Both Mayor Serratto and Councilman Blake alluded to the idea that the pilot program was only the start of something broader in scope for downtown, including more pedestrian traffic with safety in mind. Serratto suggested the one-way traffic plan could be extended and include Main Street from Martin Luther King Jr. Way to N Street. That stretch would include the Merced Theatre on one end and The Mainzer theater on the other. Transforming additional dead space into diagonal parking could end up bringing 300 to 400 additional spaces to the downtown core and save the city a ton of money.
“There’s been talk for years about the need to build a big new parking structure downtown,” Serratto said. “That’s a $10 million-dollar-plus project … Essentially, [with the pilot program] we can build a 56-unit parking lot for less than one spot would cost in a new garage.”
The mayor also sited successful one-way Main Street examples in the downtowns of other cities, from Turlock to Visalia to Laguna Beach.
On Monday night, only one resident in the audience spoke up about the pilot program. It was the president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association.
“We think the changes in traffic flow will enhance the quality of life of our neighborhood, as well as on Main Street,” said Diana Odom Gunn. “There is a lot of enthusiasm among our membership about turning Main Street into a safe and walkable environment to shop, eat, visit and hang out.”
However, city leaders and staff members might find it wise to have a more community-wide discussion on the program and consider the opinions of resident who are just hearing this plan for the first time.
Before Monday night’s meeting, the Times posted a notice of the agenda item to be discussed on Facebook and it received more than 40 comments in a matter of hours. Many of them were not in favor of changes to traffic flow on Main Street. And even during the City Council meeting, more thoughts were being shared on social media.
“Not as many small businesses were consulted as they would like folks to think,” wrote Mike Siegel, the owner of Cigar Monkey on Canal Street. “Much of the downtown issues were a pop-up surprise for downtown businesses, and a number of them are STILL not aware of this discussion.”
The City Council is expected to discuss the pilot program again at the next meeting set for Dec. 21.
In other news,
The City Council unanimously approved a supplemental appropriation of $20,000 in Coronavirus Relief Funds for a city program to aid struggling local businesses that are facing new challenges this winter. The funds would add to $20,000 already allocated to the program for a total of $40,000. Additionally, the city is asking community groups such as the Merced Boosters to help enhance the existing funding to support business and commercial activity.
The money will go to purchase heaters, canopies, umbrellas, and other operating expenses, including rental and lease assistance. Individual business will be able to apply for funding — $3,000 per request — online as part of the program.