Local landscape architects are gathering ideas from residents to improve Ashland's downtown Plaza that will help it better withstand all the different uses it sees each year.

Local landscape architects are gathering ideas from residents to improve Ashland's downtown Plaza that will help it better withstand all the different uses it sees each year.

Among the Plaza's problems are lawn areas that have become trampled and worn away to bare ground in spots, wooden benches showing wear-and-tear, and three large trees that are struggling in the confined urban setting.

During morning and evening public outreach meetings Thursday, the Ashland firm Covey Pardee Landscape Architects presented three preliminary designs for Plaza changes, then sought public opinion.

Using that feedback, the firm will craft a preferred concept plan, then collect more public comments during meetings July 9.

A final concept plan will go before the Ashland City Council at a July 16 study session.

"The Plaza as it's designed today is not standing up well to the numbers of people using it and how they're using it," said Alan Pardee, a native Ashlander and principal with Covey Pardee Landscape Architects.

People hanging out at the Plaza tend to walk and sit on the grass, resulting in bald patches and compacted soil around tree roots.

Preliminary ideas include reducing grassy areas, perhaps by replacing lawn with groundcover plants and low-growing shrubs. Trees could be encircled by low concrete walls or cordoned off with poles and chains.

At least three large trees on the Plaza are in distress and aren't suited to the site, said Ashland Parks and Recreation Department Horticulturist Anne Thayer, a certified arborist.

Sweet gum trees growing on the Plaza island across from Mix Sweet Shop don't have enough root space, she said.

Thayer said the trees could topple over because there isn't enough ground to hold their roots. Branches break off under the weight of snow and the prickly balls the trees produce.

A large ash tree on the point of the Plaza island closest to Lithia Park is unhealthy, with brown, curled leaves and a thin canopy, Thayer said.

She recommended that problem trees be gradually replaced with species that can thrive in the confined area.

"We have an opportunity here for the future of the Plaza," Thayer said.

At one of the two Thursday input sessions, resident Michael Dawkins said perhaps the Plaza could have trees in large containers. He said there are species that can do well in containers.

Dawkins said there is too much soil compaction from heavy use of the Plaza.

Worn wooden benches could be replaced with low concrete walls for people to sit on, and the city could try moveable chairs, according to early design concepts.

Some residents at Thursday's meetings said concrete walls don't seem inviting or comfortable as seating options. They favored seating that would allow people to lean back and to face each other.

"If I sit and can lean back, I can be more comfortable," said Cate Hartzell, a former Ashland City Councilor.

She also said that too much concrete and less greenery on the Plaza would cause heat to radiate, making the space less comfortable in the summer.

Moveable chairs could provide one seating solution, as long as they could be kept on the Plaza and not stolen or tossed into the street, some residents said.

One design concept calls for building a low stage on part of the Plaza, which plays host to everything from protests and flame jugglers to musical acts and holiday celebrations.

An unsightly, small, wooden shed concealing an electric utility box should be moved, some residents said.

Changes are not planned for the Plaza fountains, the Iron Mike settler statue or the information kiosk, according to the architects.

Traffic issues are also outside the scope of the project, said Pardee and fellow firm principal Greg Covey.

Still, Hartzell was among those suggesting that a mail box next to the Plaza be moved so drivers wouldn't enter the congested area just to mail letters.

Among other design and public outreach work, the landscape architects are tasked with developing cost estimates for Plaza changes.

City Council voted in May to pursue Plaza improvements. Covey Pardee Landscape Architects submitted the winning proposal for public outreach and design work. The firm's estimated cost for those tasks is $8,000 to $12,000.

The next public outreach meetings are planned from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and from 5 to 7 p.m. on Monday, July 9, in the Community Development Department Building, 51 Winburn Way.

To review the first conceptual plans and make comments, see www.ashland.or.us/News.asp?NewsID=2539.

Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.