ONARCHITECTURE- Fountain<i>plus</i>? Mall design includes lots more water

One proposed plan for the $7.5 million Downtown Mall renovation includes two new fountains, like this one in front of the Omni Hotel.

Wanna see water cascading down three steps into a reflecting pool on the Downtown Mall? Conceptual designs for the proposed $7.5 million overhaul are now available on the project website, mydowntownmall.com, courtesy the MMM Design Group, the local firm in charge of the $7.5 million project, and we appear to have two choices: the water fun park version or the dry land version.

Literally, there's a plan A and plan B– and created with nifty Flash maps. Plan B includes a fountain on the west end of the Mall, just above the Omni Hotel, with water cascading down three steps into a reflecting pool. There could also be an "interactive splash" fountain on the east end of the Mall, in front of Bashir's.

Both plans call for renovation of the existing fountains. Both plans also include six public art sculptures, ginkgo trees planted in islands along side streets, replacement of the red maples at Central Place, and extending some pedestrian-friendly features of the Mall down the side streets.

MMM has also been busy facilitating discussions with Downtown stakeholders on how to proceed, and recently completed a Business Impact Survey.

As recently reported, Downtown business owners are fearful of such a massive renovation, particularly in light of the way the City has handled the renovation of Third street, a two-month project that could now take up to nine months. To add insult to injury for the businesses on Third, the street was completely closed off last week as work began on the new sidewalks. According to the city's January construction report, the $805,749 project should be done by "early spring."

At a recent meeting of affected parties, a MMM representative acknowledged the "extreme tension" in the business community concerning this project. Indeed, such colorful comments as "If they disrupt 5th street, we're screwed" and "The loss of the patio in the spring or summer will kill our business" were included in the impact study.

Joan Fenton, a downtown business owner and co-chair of the Downtown Business Association, recently had some harsh words for the City. She charged that the Third Street mess "never should have happened," and she said she's fearful the Mall will be "destroyed" in the renovation process. In addition, Fenton called on City Council to hire an outside expert to supervise the project rather than leave it in the hands of City staff. 

"In the end," said Fenton, expressing what many others seem to feel, "The City does what it wants to do" despite studies and community meetings.

However, not all downtowners share Fenton's perspective, including the president of the Downtown Business Association.

"Concerns? I don't have any concerns," laughs Bob Stroh, who was here in the mid-'70s when the Mall was built, a project that was far more disruptive to businesses.

"Yes, it's a little nerve-wracking," he says. "Everybody's worried, the market is down, but everybody supports this project."

And unlike Fenton, Stroh has nothing but praise for City staff. "I think the City and the design team have done an extraordinary job reaching out to people and gathering information," he says. "I've gone to five stakeholder meetings in the last week." 

As for Third Street, he points out that resurfacing the Mall will be nothing like having to dig up an entire street. "That project is similar to what they had to do when they built the Mall," he says. In addition, Stroh says he feels confident that City staff is prepared to impose construction deadlines with penalties on this project instead of taking the lower bid, which was the case on Third.

According to City Engineer Tony Edwards, a bid last April was rejected because– at $765,000– it was too high, double the city engineer's early estimate. (Although it was lower than it's going to end up costing.) And while Stroh's right about the Third Street dig being more complex than resurfacing the Mall, the City itself is partly to blame since overhead utilities like electric, cable, and telephone were buried during the Paramount renovation, making the replacement of water and sewer lines "more complicated than we thought it would be," says Edwards.

Still, Stroh remains upbeat about the Mall project moving forward. "They've been working on this project for five years, and I think they've done a heck of a job," he says. "Look at the brick work on the east end of the Mall. That's what the rest of the Mall will look like. It's a much needed improvement."

Adding insult to injury for the businesses on Third, the street was completely closed the last week in January.