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Streetscape Improvements for Historic Lower Main Street

Potential enhancements including plantings and pavers presented to the public

On March 14, RDA Landscape Architects held a public presentation at the Port Washington Public Library to discuss how to enhance the branding of historic lower Main Street through sidewalk and landscape improvements. It was a part of the BID’s effort to help enhance the Main Street shopping and dining experience by reinforcing the character of Main Street through decorative pavement, new plantings, signage and site furniture improvements.

Roy Smitheimer, executive director of the BID, explained that this project would encompass a three-block area on lower Main Street, stretching from Jackson Street to South Washington Street. “This is a key area in Port, a gateway to the community, just like upper Main Street, Port Washington Boulevard and the train station area,” Smitheimer said. He added that the point of a streetscape improvement project in this area would be to promote it as a beautiful, historical place in order to attract more pedestrians and, therefore, shoppers.

The BID is a municipal entity in the Town of North Hempstead and they can only work within the parameters of the right of way, which is the public section between the curb of the sidewalk and the part that goes to the private property line. However, Smitheimer noted that property owners could always give the BID permission to do something on their property, such as signage.

In describing the funding of this project, Smitheimer said that it could be a mix of private and public pay, which would be a partnership between the BID and the property owners. He also stated that the BID could go through the town of North Hempstead for a bond, which has been done before for other projects.

The BID completed a topographical survey in order to understand the physical conditions on the street and they also hired RDA Landscape Architects. Even though this company is based in St. James, Smitheimer pointed out that they are not new to Port Washington, since they have worked on other projects in the area including the extension of the Bay Walk and several developments within the Port Washington School District.

Before introducing the architects from RDA, Smitheimer made it clear that nothing is set in stone at this point and they are looking for everyone’s input.

Bob Retnauer of RDA Landscape Architects began the presentation by saying, “Our main focus is what we can do to elevate an already nice area to a nicer area through the use of various pavements and plantings.”

RDA’s Craig Ingber said that one of the main constructs he wanted to bring to this project was something called “place branding,” which is an idea that places, like products, need to stay competitive to garner their fair share of pedestrian traffic. Ingber added that they would like to increase visibility while maintaining the same identity in order to increase pedestrian traffic for the benefit of the local economy.

Retnauer said that the elements to enhance the streetscape would be plantings, seating areas, signage and pavers. New plantings would be kept in scale with the street and would not interfere with public utilities. The presentation suggested that signage could be brought down a bit, since many of the buildings are two- and three-stories high, which can create a “cavernous” effect on the street.

There were several types of pavers brought up, but the main focus was on permeable pavers. RDA architects explained that permeable pavers have a joint space all around them, so all of the water drains through. This reduces the amount of runoff into the storm drains, which would be particularly helpful for this area since it is on a downward slope. These pavers also treat the stormwater, which could help protect trees and other plantings from road salt and oil.

The presentation included several possible sites for improvement. One was the “transition gateway” that would be located just past the library, moving down Main Street towards Shore Road. “It’s really your first impression as you come down into lower Main Street,” Retnauer said, adding that it is an area of a lot of unused pavement. RDA’s idea is to utilize this spot to announce that you are entering a different district, which would include some plantings and a sign that could say “Historic Lower Main Street.”

RDA suggested adding pavers and plantings near the Port Harbor Plaza parking lot. Another site for streetscape improvements would be near Ayhan’s, which would include an area of pavers, benches and plantings.

They also touched on the problems with traffic and pedestrian safety at the intersection of Main Street and Shore Road. This intersection has become a heated issue in this community, since the Town of North Hempstead removed the parking spots last year to make way for a left turning lane. One of the problems that RDA mentioned was the lack of a crosswalk, which not only impedes the flow of pedestrian traffic but could also be a safety issue.

During this meeting, it was explained why this crosswalk was recently removed. Apparently, the crosswalk that existed at this intersection before the road was reconfigured, repaved, and repainted was not ADA (American Disabilities Act) compliant, because there are two steps up to the curb that cannot accommodate wheelchairs. The crosswalk was there before this law was in place, so it was grandfathered in. However, once the crosswalk was removed, it could not be put back unless it was ADA compliant. The challenge is the two steps up to the curb, which would need to be changed.

RDA suggested creating some sort of ramp in this area to make it ADA compliant for a crosswalk. It is also a tricky issue because the basements of these buildings extend under the sidewalk, which means that they would need cooperation with the property owners. The architects also suggested putting a railing in this area to safely funnel pedestrian traffic.

Smitheimer said that there is a traffic study being done in this area, meaning that the Town of North Hempstead could decide to change the traffic flow yet again. In explaining why the traffic pattern could change, Smitheimer noted that there has been a lot of controversy over this area. One person in the crowd loudly stated, “And it’s hurting businesses, too.”

Town Councilwoman Dina DeGiorgio provided more information on the traffic study, explaining that the traffic consultant feels that it has to be done when there are a greater number of cars, which occurs in April, May, and June. “I would like to put a crosswalk back,” she said. DeGiorgio added that this area needs to be more pedestrian friendly. “It just encourages drive-by – there is no sense that you should stop and shop.”

Everyone else agreed on putting the crosswalk back in that area. One person described the difficulties of navigating this area with his mother, who uses a wheelchair. “Wheeling all the way up to where you have to cross – it’s like a maze,” he said.

Patti Vunk, owner of The Dolphin Bookshop, which is located at the corner of Main Street where the crosswalk was removed, spoke about these issues. “That [two-step] curb is dangerous and ugly and yet nobody knows why it is there and nobody knows what we can do to get rid of it,” she said, while other attendees speculated that it was possibly put in a very long time ago for horse-drawn carriages. Vunk continued to say, “The changes made were to increase speed… and the changes have caused an expectation of movement. It makes people feel like they should be moving and they should be moving fast.”

Vunk added that this particular area should be a pedestrian destination that encourages people to slow down and enjoy this waterfront area. “We’re sitting on this beautiful place where we can get out of our cars and stroll around in a naturally beautiful place. I think the decision-making should take that into account: that it should be a place that all of us would like to come to, that people from out of town would like to come to,” she said.

Harry DiFeo, who owns two buildings on lower Main Street, stated that he was not interested in contributing any money to this project. He said, “We just finished making the ‘Super Highway’ on Main Street, and now we are going to make it look pretty?”

Another concern that people had was about the maintenance of the proposed plantings. One person said, “Sure, they look good for a few months, and then no one takes care of it and it looks bad.” Retnauer said that they would use hardy plants and Smitheimer said that the BID would be putting more crews out this spring and summer to take care of plants.

Betty Stephens, who is on the BID’s board of directors, suggested that RDA stretch planning to the town dock. She explained that many people come by boat in the summertime, and it would be nice to have a more welcoming gateway to historic lower Main Street in that area.

One person was concerned about the trees, saying that he would rather have canopy trees like “majestic oaks” instead of the “frou-frou crape myrtles” that are repeatedly suggested. He explained that the canopy trees add a feeling of hominess and comfort in Port Washington while the smaller trees make the streets look stark.

Retnauer answered, “It may not work here, simply because there is not enough space for these trees to grow in a healthy manner.” He added that public utilities above lead to tree trimming, causing the unsightly appearance of trees that have had their branches hacked off.

Dan Donatelli, co-president of Residents for a More Beautiful Port Washington, spoke about the interesting variety of colors of the buildings on lower Main Street, which already adds to the streetscape. He said, “When you put it all together, there is some sort of beautiful magic that occurs there.”