ELKHART — Dan Burden, who estimates he has visited 3,500 communities in a quest to see what works and doesn’t work for downtown communities, visited Elkhart Thursday and left with some positive impressions.
And he offered a few ideas to help further revitalize Elkhart’s downtown.
Burden is the executive director of Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, of Port Townsend, Wash., a group that offers urban planning ideas that emphasize the need for pedestrian and bike pathways.
Representatives of Elkhart, South Bend, Plymouth and Warsaw participated in a two-day program arranged by the regional transportation agency, Michiana Area Council of Government.
Officials participated in a seminar Wednesday in Warsaw and then took walking tours — or audits, as he calls them — of their downtowns on Thursday.
Burden was joined by nearly a dozen city officials as he critiqued Elkhart’s downtown.
Burden was quick to endorse the recent switch to angled parking along South Main Street, saying that the additional 54 parking spots are “a positive step in the right direction.”
The change also helps slow down traffic, he said, which tends to translate into improved retail trade.
He also liked South Main Street’s street scape, the Riverwalk and said he thought the NIBCO Water and Ice Park was especially unique.
One thing that is lacking in the overall scheme, though, are trees, especially along Main Street, he said, Adding trees to the downtown not only creates more shade, but helps provide a sense of enclosure and reflects well upon visitors, he said.
“A good solid arborist coming in and writing a prescription and getting those trees in is one of the best returns in investment you’ll get,” Burden said.
Adding trees to the mix can be done in stages, the first of which could involve adding trees in large containers, he said.
He also urged city officials to spruce up some of the key alleys that branch off South Main and pointed out one near Lexington Avenue.
“The alleys were just ordinary,” Burden said.
Cleaning up the alleys and adding flower boxes and lamps can help create inviting passageways to other parking areas, he said.
In terms of a retail mix for the downtown, Burden said he thinks Elkhart could use a grocery store.
He said the large number of city officials who participated in Thursday’s tour indicates how committed the city is toward enhancing the downtown.
“It tells me you have leadership that is ready to move forward,” he said.
His strongest reaction while visiting Elkhart, though, came after he toured Lerner Theatre, which opened a year ago following an $18 million renovation.
“I’ve been to towns 20 times larger that don’t have a theater like your theater,” Burden said. “It’s one of the greatest treasures I’ve ever found in all of the town’s I’ve been to.”