Westerville News & Public Opinion

$135,000 to address known shortcomings

Westerville hopes new plan will keep Uptown strong

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With its historic buildings, walkable streets and mix of locally owned restaurants and retail shops, Uptown Westerville models the type of town center many cities attempt to emulate.

Nevertheless, Westerville city officials see room for improvement, potentially by adding a public gathering space, entertainment venue or friendlier parking.

To work toward ensuring Uptown's vibrancy, the city is working to create an Uptown plan.

"As we look at the evolution of the city, and Uptown having always been the heart of the community, the basic motivating factor is to make sure it continues to be a strong center for the community," said Westerville Senior Planner Bassem Bitar. "We want to make sure that Uptown itself is strong but also guide the interaction with the surrounding areas and make sure that all of that area is working together in a healthy way."

In creating the plan, the city has contracted with MKSK, the consulting firm that also worked on Columbus' Scioto Mile, the Arena District and the revamping of Downtown Columbus.

With the hiring of MKSK and a historical preservation consultant on an as-needed basis, the plan carries a budget of about $135,000, Bitar said.

So far, the consultant has taken stock of Uptown's existing conditions and talked to Uptown stakeholders. A steering committee for the plan has been formed, and the city has opened a website on which those interested in the plan can read updates, post comments and ideas, and weigh in on proposals for the plan.

Bitar said the city is pleased with the response it has seen on the site, PlanUptown.com, and will continue using the process as more finite concepts are created for the final planning document.

"What it enables people to do is if someone posts an idea, it allows other people to weigh in and expand on it, and it also lets us reply and let people know that we are doing something or researching the idea and thank people for the idea," Bitar said.

Issues that city planners aim to address with the plan are: parking, the vacant upper floors of Uptown buildings, better tying Uptown to Otterbein University and the concept of a public venue in Uptown.

"There are several buildings where the upper floors have been empty for several years," Bitar said. "Uptown, being the heart of the community and having the events we have there like 4th Fridays -- is there a need for a civic space; is there a need for something that people can feel ownership of, that can be a gathering space for special events beyond the front courtyard of city hall or the farmers (market) location, which is really just a parking lot?"

City staff hopes to put the plan before Westerville City Council this summer, Bitar said.

Debbie Bennati, owner of the Uptown shop A Gal Named CindaLou and president of the Westerville Uptown Merchants Association, is a member of the steering committee for the Uptown plan.

While Bennati said she values Uptown as it is, she also sees room for improvement.

"Right now, we have quite a few empty spots," Bennati said. "My big concern that I keep bringing up is that we have restaurants, and restaurants have made us a booming area, but we need more retail.

"Those of us in retail know that you have to have more than three or more shops. Even though they're more competition for us, they bring more people in."

As Amish Originals prepares to move its operations to its north location and vacate the old State Theatre location, the city should help guide what happens to the historic building, Bennati said.

"There is a good group of people who would like to see it become some type of theater again, not just (for) movies, but small music acts," Bennati said. "A lot of towns like ours, they've brought back the theater to its original state."

Bennati said it is heartening that the city is taking such an active role in keeping Uptown vibrant.

"The city's really investing in keeping the charm that it is and making sure that they don't tear down the buildings that are there but embrace their history and restore them to what they were," she said. "They try to work with us, and they love our input, which is great."

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