A Vision for Dover: City officials say it’s time to put plans into motion

DOVER — It seems to be the same story, over and over again.

The same issues that continually face Dover’s leaders continue to challenge the city as it prepares to move into a future that could include a downtown parking garage, affordable housing, a collegiate vibe, more entertainment options and less crime.

City Planner Dave Hugg and his planning staff are tasked this year with updating Dover’s Comprehensive Plan, which lays out a vision for the Capital City’s future over the next decade.

Well, according to Ashley Robinson, who attended a Comprehensive Plan Open House at the Dover Public Library on Thursday, words are nice, but action is what the community is looking for.

“Change is just taking a while … too long,” said Ms. Robinson, whose mom owns The Wedding Boutique on Governors Avenue. “We’ve been downtown for 10 to 15 years and it hasn’t moved in a positive direction yet, which part of it is some of the owners of some buildings don’t want to give up their buildings.

“It’s just not happening fast enough.”

Mr. Hugg understands her frustration. He said he has been going over Dover’s last comprehensive plan in 2008 and many initiatives, which have been backed by paid studies, have just remained in files in City Hall.

“They need to get done,” Mr. Hugg said. “We’ve talked about some of these major projects, not necessarily me because I haven’t been here that long, but some of these projects have been talked about for years and it’s time.

“It’s time to get them done and it’s time for the city to step up and make some of those investments.”

He added, “We’ve got all these plans. We’ve got corridor plans and the transit center plan and plans for downtown and all these studies that had been done, some of them have been sitting on the shelf for a decade. Either dust them off and implement them or throw them out, either one or the other, it’s time to take that action.”

View is from the South Bradford Street parking lots (foreground) looking toward southeast and downtown Dover. City planners are updating Dover’s Comprehensive Plan, which
lays out a vision for the Capital City’s future over the next decade.

Michael Rogers, pastor of Central Baptist Church, attended Thursday’s open house and thought the planning staff put on a good presentation.

“It’s still in its’ beginning stages and we’re looking to hear more information into the specifics they want to make, especially related to housing issues,” Pastor Rogers said. “That’s what my concern is.

“I think the main issues facing Dover are housing, jobs and the homeless situation. A lot of that has to come under scrutiny with regards to what the plans are and how they’re going to implement these plans that won’t deter or cause problems for other areas.”

Ms. Robinson summed up many people’s experience when they visit Dover.

“You can go out to eat to death, but that’s about it,” she said.

Looking for a spark

If Dover is serious about revitalizing the downtown area, Mayor Robin Christiansen said it is time to take action.

He believes the city needs to find a way to build a parking garage downtown while also partnering with Streetsense’s Vibrant Destination Program

Streetsense, a Washington, D.C., marketing firm which has successfully worked with Kent County Tourism over the past couple of years, said it could help corral all the downtown merchant’s ideas – as well as the city’s comprehensive plan – and help create a future vision that would reinvigorate Dover and make residents proud of their town.

Mayor Christiansen agrees that it’s time to move past words.

At the end of a Streetsense presentation to many of Dover’s civic leaders last month, the mayor said, “I ask that you all reach out and ask the members of (city) council to support this financially. There always seems to be (some) good nature that says, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this.’

“Well, let’s actually put our money where our mouth is because I think we need to know what we want to be when we grow up. I think we need tell the mayor and council to lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”

Mr. Hugg said it would make perfect sense for the city to build a parking garage and partner with Streetsense at the same time to have a collective vision of Dover’s future.

“You kind of want to make some of these things tie together so there’s some cohesiveness between them and not just incidental projects here and there and they get done,” he said.

Parking garage could be the first domino

Mr. Hugg thinks that business leaders are waiting for a sign to invest in Dover. He feels like the construction of a parking garage downtown could be that signal.

“I think the decision of ‘Where are we going to put a parking garage?’ is kind of the key,” he said. “It’s the one that’s going to send a positive signal and probably drive some of the development around it.

“Private investors who are interested in doing things need a signal from the city that we’re serious.”

Business owners in the downtown corridor believe a strategically placed parking garage will have a greater impact that merely boosting their businesses.

“I think it’s the same kind of thing that we’re looking at, which is kind of the perception that there’s no parking downtown,” said Erik Mabus, owner and pharmacist at Bayard Pharmacy on Loockerman Street. “Even if the studies might show that there is enough parking, it doesn’t matter if people don’t believe it.

“I think having a parking garage would be a big deal for the merchants or even for just different events that they have downtown that bring people in and out. It would make it a lot easier for people to get in and out of town.”

Mr. Mabus said the many varieties of parking lot options in Dover, such as two-hour free parking and others, tend to make if confusing to visitors.

“Even if they think there might be parking in a parking lot they don’t like to go hunt for it and look when they could know I could just go here and park (in a garage) and just be done with it,” he said.

Ms. Robinson agreed with him.

“Me and my mom have a shop downtown and we always get customers all the time who are like, ‘Where can I park because it says Private-Parking only or sometimes the two-hour parking is already taken up.’ It’s just way too confusing.”

Location, location, location

Mr. Hugg said the city has been doing location searches for a possible parking garage and has basically come down to two spots: The site of the old Acme store on Governors Avenue near the Dover Fire Department and the current site of the Bradford Street parking lot about a block north of Loockerman Street.

“It’ll be easily two years and maybe even longer than that from the time somebody says, ‘Do it,’ and the time you get the first car parked,” said Mr. Hugg. “Parking garages are relatively straight-forward kind of buildings. They don’t have a lot of interior finishes and things that might complicate the design, but it still takes a while with the construction cycle.

“You’re probably even as much as three or four years before it’s open and ready to go into service.”

That’s the frustrating part for downtown residents and business owners, where the Schwartz Center for the Arts has had its curtains closed for more than a year and many storefronts downtown – including the old Loockerman Exchange restaurant on the corner of State Street and Loockerman – sit empty.

“Just like we build libraries and just like we build police stations, it’s an obligation of the city government to provide this (parking garage) for the infrastructure downtown and I think we need to get to it,” Dover City Council President Tim Slavin said.

Mayor Christiansen agreed, saying, “I would rather spend the money that we’re going to put into (parking) signs toward the future of downtown Dover and the future of the city in a parking garage and affordable parking.”

The views shared by the pair of city leaders at a city council meeting in late March were in stark contrast to recommendations made by a Downtown Dover Parking Study that was led by Philadelphia-based Langan Engineering and Environmental Service Inc.

Spencer Finch, of Langan Engineering, presented the parking study, which was an initiative of the city of Dover, the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Downtown Dover Partnership.

It took two years to complete and cost $58,000.

“The parking (situation in Dover) was not easy to understand, whether it was where to go or in relation to the cost,” Mr. Finch said. “There’s a huge gap in the different parking rates (at the various lots).”

Mr. Finch said the study recommended better wayfinding and signage to parking in the city, a revised parking rate structure, improved physical infrastructure – including streetscape, landscape, lighting, security cameras, new pocket parks that would connect walkways and new gateways to downtown — enhanced public engagement and marketing of historic downtown Dover as a destination.

Most of the city’s leaders believe the problem lies deeper than just signs.

Of the 1,119 available parking spaces in Dover, 37 percent (394 spaces) are permit spaces or reserved for staff or tenants; 32 percent (346 spaces) are free two-hour parking spots; 28 percent (302 spaces) are basically free on-street parking spots (where there is no sign posted); 3 percent (32 spaces) are metered off-street spaces, costing 25 cents per hour up to a maximum of $1 daily; 3 percent (32 spaces) are ADA spaces; 1 percent (11 spaces) are free 30-minute spaces and 0.2 percent (2 spaces) are free 15-minute spaces.

“If we build a vertical parking garage, as I believe we should, and have that as our solution, we could then open up those properties for development and attract new businesses in that require more spaces,” said Mr. Slavin. “The benefit of it was that we’ve got more rentable property downtown and the parking garage long-term would probably pay for itself two times over on a payback period.”

Streetsense make sense?

The possible construction of a downtown parking garage would appear to go hand-in-hand with a city partnership with Streetsense, whose mission is to transform cities into desirable locations to work and live.

Tom Frank, executive director of engagement for the firm, said he didn’t exactly get a warm feeling recently when he drove into Dover.

“One of the first things we always do is we walk into a gas station when we come into a new town and we ask, ‘What is there to do here?,’” Mr. Frank said. “I was amazed when I heard the answer because the guy looked at me and was like, ‘Ain’t nothing to do here.’

“Right there I knew we had a big mission in front of us. Not only do we have to rebuild a brand, but we have to transform a community to be proud of where they live, so when the next guy walks in (that gas station) he starts rattling all of the great things about his community and why he lives there. That is really our mission.”

The partnership with Streetsense remains in its infancy as the city, Kent County and the Downtown Dover Partnership try to figure out ways to fund the program.

The vision comes with a price.

Ralph Thompson, executive director of travel and tourism for Streetsense, said the firm would charge $42,000 for an assessment into Dover’s downtown area and another $29,000 on top of that for an assessment of all of Dover.

“The assessment would take about 90 days to put together, our visioning process takes 60 to 90 days, development of a plan is in the 60- to 90-day range and the whole document and vision moving forward would be put together and presented to the community,” Mr. Thompson said, “so it is a six to nine-month initiative to get everything together and to move forward in terms of action.”

Altogether, the initial six- to nine-month period of putting a collective plan into place would cost between $500,000 to $600,000.

Mr. Thompson said the plan usually takes around a decade to completely come to fruition with an overall price tag between $1.5 and $2 million.

The plan would eventually balance housing and business and would bring a more focused vision to what Dover will look like in the future.

Controlling the chaos

For now, Mr. Hugg and his staff are reaching out to the community trying to get as much feedback as they can for its comprehensive plan, which is due to be completed in early February.

The city’s planning staff hosted an open house at the Dover Public Library on Thursday, just off the heels of a city-wide survey they distributed and placed on the city’s website from June 11 to July 31 this summer.

The survey covered topics such as: economic development; downtown Dover; housing; traffic and transit; utilities and services; parks and recreation; natural environment, development and urban design and land use, growth and annexation and Dover Air Force Base.

“In any effort in doing a comprehensive plan a key component is to engage the public,” said Justin Swierczek, who works in the planning department.

“We need the public’s feedback and we need to know what (they) want to see in a plan for the next 10 years for the city.”

Mr. Swierczek was very pleased with the wide array of responses the city received from its’ survey.

“There were 511 responses, which is phenomenal,” he said. “It sort of blew us away and provided us with all kinds of information on demographics, who was looking at this, who was giving us all kids on feedback.”

The city expects to put the results of the survey on its’ website this week.

Members of the community will then be able to see that residents of Dover have shown they are interested in things such as maintaining a close relationship with Dover Air Force Base, bringing more affordable housing to the city, solving the homeless issue, building a parking garage and revitalizing downtown.

“We’ve also got four colleges in town but it doesn’t really have a college vibe, so we were thinking, ‘Is this something the public wants us to maybe engage in and adopt policy to maybe form around that?,’” Mr. Swierczek said.

“Those are the kinds of things the survey is telling us.”

Ms. Robinson attended Delaware State University and she agreed that the city needed to include students in its’ activities.

“I thought it was very informative, especially from the survey,” said Ms. Robinson, of Thursday’s presentation.

“They got a lot of responses, which was really good. I thought that most of it was accurate. There’s a ton of things that moved me.

“We have four colleges in the area and it’s not a college town, especially compared to UD. Up there it’s always so busy, it’s always UD, and down here it should be more geared at least to DelState and Wesley.

“I went to Delaware State and most of the kids come from other areas – New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and D.C. and most of the time they go home because there’s nothing to do. There’s just not enough entertainment things to do here.”

With all these issues facing the city, not to mention the relocation of the Dover Post Office, a new administrative complex for City Hall, an updated vision of the gateway into Dover on Del. 8 from the west and other things, Mr. Hugg and his staff have plenty of balls to juggle.

The 2019 Dover Comprehensive Plan will try to bring a lot of those balls under control and prioritize them.

Mr. Hugg said sometimes people need to take chances if they want to get a big return, like what happened with the city of Wilmington’s Riverfront, which is now bustling with economic and entertainment activity.

“A former governor and a former president of the University of Delaware got together and stood up on the waterfront in Wilmington and said, ‘By God, we can do this.’ And they did it,” Mr. Hugg said. “We need to figure out how they got it done.

“The most important thing that they got done was the government entities stood up, put aside the politics, put aside the ‘we can’t pay for it,’ and said, ‘If it’s worth doing, we’re going to find a way to make it happen.’

Mr. Hugg added, “That’s not happened in Dover. I hate to say it, but that’s not happened. Everybody’s kind of, ‘Oh well, it’s not in our budget,’ or ‘Well, it’s not government’s responsibility,’ or ‘Well, it’s somebody else.’

“There needs to be some leader that stands up and says, ‘By God, we’re going to do it,’ and isn’t afraid to take the crap that will come.”

Dover’s vision for the next decade promises to come in February. It remains unclear whether action will follow.

 

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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