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City still ignores Plaza suggestions

Many good suggestions for improving the redesigned Plaza have been made by hundreds of residents in Ashland, yet the council majority’s spokespersons’ recent comments make it clear the city is intent on ignoring them:

“Everyone on the Beautification Committee likes the Plaza; they don't want any major change to it.” — Dave Kanner, city administrator.

“All the downtown businesses we’ve talked to like the Plaza” — Dennis Slattery, councilor.

Yet 65 percent polled in a Sneak Preview readers poll expressed dislike of the current Plaza. (Apparently the city has not talked with all the downtown businesses, because Umi Sushi, Alex’s at the time, and Thread Hysteria, among others, expressed strong dislike of the Plaza and have championed Petitions to Restore the Plaza in their stores.) Clearly there is a huge disconnect between majority public opinion and the official policies of our city government.

One possible explanation: The council majority is much more sensitive and responsive to the views of some downtown businesses than it is to the sentiments of the general public. And despite all the talk from commissioners and councilors about the Plaza being “our living room,” the Plaza is officially classified only as a "wide sidewalk" by the Planning Commission, not as the heart of our downtown, as it should be. It is this overview which cast the direction for the entire Plaza redesign.

Recently, our mayor's hand-picked Downtown Beautification Committee unanimously voted to retain the current Plaza’s form, keeping the existing layout and the bulk of the gray pavers. It reaffirmed a Plaza that is viewed by many as hot, off-putting and barren, one which attempts, albeit unsuccessfully, to discourage the homeless, and “vagrants” from loitering. A committee comprising those of similar viewpoint is a recipe for biased public policy. There are sufficient statements of record to support these allegations:*

One Conservation Commission member was quoted as saying during an early 2012 commission meeting:

"... There's a concern — and I'm not going to speak for anybody else, that (inaudible) downtown public safety with people being accosted, beat up,and run out of town, whether they're vagrant or not vagrant (inaudible) They're saying this plan, this item, what they're trying to do is clean up the Plaza and make it a safe place for people to use their parks again whether they are being vagrant or not being vagrant, and the council wants it done. Or certain people want it completed and finished ..."

On the face of it, these are positive goals. However, taken in context with the Plaza's "wide sidewalk" classification, it suggests the primary intent of the redesign was not to beautify the Plaza or make it welcoming, but to remake it into a utilitarian thoroughfare. Looking at today's Plaza, it’s obvious and foremost goal was to create a negative space to discourage loitering and disorderly conduct, and maximize visibility for the police, not to create a positive space for the entire community to enjoy. A sizable number of our community is still mourning the destruction of several perfectly healthy trees and what is seen as the disfigurement and deconstruction of our slightly run-down but charming Plaza.

The downtown Plaza is not the sole proprietary interest of a select few in the downtown business community, or of the council — It belongs to all the people of Ashland. Good people are on our council and DBC, yes, absolutely. But there have been systemic glitches and biases in the underlying process that first created the Plaza and later advocated its enhancement, and a tendency by many of those directly responsible to remain unresponsive when questioned.

I believe there exists a meeting point to marry the legitimate concerns of some in the downtown business community and the Chamber, which are heavily represented on the DBC, with the desires of the broader community for a more esthetically pleasing Plaza, one which reinforces the feeling and form of our Downtown Historic District and reflects the values of our small-town artistic community. These two goals are not mutually incompatible. The Calle walkway is a perfect example of this marriage of form and function.

But for the 65 percent of local citizens, including over 565 Petitioners for Restoration of Our Plaza, who wish to improve our Plaza and see it beautified in a way that is meaningful to the majority of Ashlanders, it’s becoming increasingly apparent the council majority and DBC are not responsive to our concerns. We must therefore create our own designs, raise our own funds, muster the political will, and do it ourselves, just as the Mount Shasta community did with their lovely Parker Plaza. Hopefully the city, some of the downtown businesses, the DBC and the Chamber will soon wake up and join us in this effort.

David Sherr lives in Ashland.