ELKHART — Cassopolis Street needs to do a better job at inviting people downtown while also being more attractive itself, according to members of Elkhart’s Redevelopment Commission.
City right-of-way engineer Jeff Schaffer, at the commission’s session this week, said that while Cassopolis Street is already undergoing change, including the installation of new sidewalks, the Engineering Division is already discussing what should come next.
“What can we add that would have developers look at these lots and not just see standard highway commercial, but to start to see something different, that this is part of the city and this is an urban environment?” Schaffer said.
Cassopolis Street, on the north side of the city, is the main thoroughfare from the Indiana Toll Road to downtown. Along with its side streets, it is home to many restaurants, stores and hotels.
Schaffer said the new sidewalks, not finished yet, have already helped do that, as people are beginning to travel the area on foot.
But the city also needs to do a better job at letting people who drive on Cassopolis Street know how to get downtown and why they should do so, Schaffer said.
Additionally, it could be beneficial to change the route some drivers take to get downtown, so that more people turn right on Bristol Street to get to Main Street rather than continuing to Beardsley Avenue through a largely residential part of Cassopolis Street.
“Let’s get them over to Main Street along the Wellfield, along some of our historic homes, along the Conn-Selmer building that’s just been redeveloped,” Schaffer said.
With him at the commission meeting was Max Spann, an Orlando, Florida, landscape architect and friend of Schaffer’s who had drawn up some ideas on his own time.
“We spent some time over the last two days kind of looking over Cassopolis Street,” Schaffer said. “We really want to give you a vision for this project.”
A first step that would make Cassopolis Street more inviting, he said, would be to bury the overhanging lines that follow the road. The east side of the road has a particularly large amount of “clutter.”
“But obviously that’s not possible,” he said, because of what it would cost.
On the west side is an overhead fiber-optic line that could be buried for a sensible cost, he said. And that’s by the southbound lanes, which are the most important to drawing people downtown.
Installing public art along the street would be another helpful step, according to Spann.
“To create a very unique identity for the corridor and draw you into downtown,” he said, “you need some standardized features, identifiers.”
That could include several overhead signs.
“As you drive past, your eye will lead into the next one, and lead into the next one. It will actually create a process of making you wonder what’s down the street,” Spann said.
According to Schaffer, the state has pre-approved certain overhead masts, but “they are ugly,” and so the city might want to apply to the state to approve something more attractive for the state road.
That might even include lights and colors at night in order to make signage stand out from wires crossing the road, Spann said.
If the city takes on this project, it will need to acquire some land along Cassopolis Street, Schaffer said. He was not talking of entire parcels, he said, but rather corners of some properties.
“The intent is not to put anybody out of business,” he said.
The first step after Schaffer’s and Spann’s presentation is for the city to send out a request for proposal for consultants who could be brought in to create a more detailed plan, Schaffer said.
“What Max was able to do in a day obviously needs to be built on extensively,” he said.
Commissioners were positive toward this plan.
“I think the need to beautify the Cassopolis Street corridor has been talked about a long time, and it needs to happen,” Kyle Hannon said.
Jason Fink said there may be a need for making similar improvements along other corridors leading to downtown from different directions. However, the Redevelopment Commission has more options for Cassopolis Street because it is in a tax increment financing district, meaning the commission has funds specifically available for making improvements there.
Schaffer estimated that hiring consultants to create a design for the project will cost about $80,000.
The commission approved the request to have staff send out a request for proposal.
Follow Rasmus S. Jorgensen on Twitter at @ReadRasmus