A look to the future

New strategic plan details projects to enhance downtown Warren

One of several parcels the city owns that were, in part, the impetus for the development of a downtown strategic plan.

No one argues that downtown Warren isn’t what it was 20, 30 or 50 years ago.

But what can it be moving into the future?

And what can be done now to bring that vision into reality?

A new strategic plan – a joint effort between CT Consultants, and the City of Warren, Planning Commission and Redevelopment Authority – seeks to provide that direction.

A copy of the plan was recently provided to the Times Observer.

“Several locations in this area are ripe for new development or revitalization,” the study concludes.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges.

“The retail tenant mix and the amount of vacant space remains subpar,” they conclude. “Most of the second story (and higher) floor area in downtown retail buildings is empty.”

Issues were also raised regarding “sufficient public access” to the Allegheny River and Conewango Creek.

At the heart of the plan is what to do with nine city-owned properties “between Pennsylvania Avenue and the River and part of this plan is to recommend appropriate uses and development of these sites.”

The plan hits on a host of issues – revitalizing business downtown, setting a vision for the future and listing specific projects to support that vision.

“(T)he potential for increased downtown retail business activity will be achieved by creating a retail environment that will entice more residents and employees within the 15-mile market area to spent more of their money on shopping and leisure activities in Warren, capture a greater share of the visitors currently coming into the region and attract more visitors to the region,” the consultants conclude. “The health of downtown cannot rely on only attracting market support from the County and ‘nearby’ region – this area alone does not support the size and economic requirements of maintaining the core area of downtown – Warren must think bigger!!”

“Our needs can be fairly simply stated: Build on our strengths and work to overcome our challenge,” they conclude, with the vision “to expand Warren as a year-round destination that in turn brings more people downtown to work, live and visit….”

But how?

The specific recommendations were broken into four areas: Design, economic vitality, organization and promotion.

Design

Specific recommendations include increasing connections to the area’s waterways, enhancing walkability, reinstatement of a downtown facade program as well as “ensur(ing) the historic integrity/cohesion is maintained.”

The plan also calls on officials to “provide downtown amenities to create an inviting and pleasant ambiance,” such as tress, way-finding signage and restrooms, among other things.

Economic vitality

Recommendations in this area include filling empty buildings with things such as pop-up shops, incubators and galleries as well as providing financial incentives for entrepreneurs.

This area also touches on a need to “promote development of underutilized or vacant parcels such as Clark Street for such priority facilities” as a high-tech company, college branch campus or hotel/convention center.

Other recommendations include establishing a permanent location for a year-round farmer’s market as well as to “continue to monitor and adjust as needed the city’s downtown parking management strategy.”

Organization

The major recommendation here is to “establish/restore a non-profit organization focused on downtown, which has the capacity and authority to accept donations and can function as a community improvement organization.”

That includes hiring a manager for a “Main Street”-type program.

Nancy Freenock, the city’s manager, told the Times Observer last week that city council has decided to include $50,000 toward such a program for 2018.

Other recommendations here include assembling a “package of financial incentives” – real estate tax abatement, tax increment financing and grants/loans, including a revolving loan fund – to prospective downtown investors, technology infrastructure improvements, an on-foot police presence downtown as well as a concerted effort to “create and maintain programs to make it easy and pleasant to be downtown and which foster ‘pride of place,’ such as comprehensive sidewalk cleaning and snow removal program, regular street sweeping, litter cleaned up, maintenance of landscaping, etc.”

Promotion

Recommendations include embracing digital platforms, developing a branding message as well as providing services for tourists, such as outdoor-oriented retail, outdoor fining, more consistent business hours as well as trees and benches “which encourage shoppers and visitors to linger longer.”

Expanded efforts in the arts, a “coordinated and comprehensive marketing program” as well as a shop-local campaign were some of the other initiatives outlined.

Going back to one of the original motivations for the plan – what to do with the properties the city owns downtown – the consultants make specific recommendations.

“In no way,” should the vacant corner of Pennsylvania Ave. and Liberty St. “be utilized for parking.”

The consultants call that property a “key infill development site due to its location at this primary intersection and call for a multi-story building.

Four parcels, 1.48 acres, north of Liberty Street adjacent to the parking garage are recommended as the site of a hotel or convention center while the waterfront parcels in the same area – .3 acres – are recommended as a recreation site as “the city has an access easement to build a walking path” along the river in that area.

The plan also contains a detailed three-year action plan outlining steps to be taken and who should take them. Guidance is also provided on the role of the various parties – city, private sector, etc. – involved.

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