BY NANCY GAGNET | MIRROR REPORTER — A new plan that calls for calming Conant Street traffic while advocating a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly streetscape with ample sidewalks and additional parking has been well-received by local business owners.
“I think it’s great,” said Margo Puffenburger, who helped found Clear Vision 4 Maumee (CV4M), a grassroots group working toward the development of a new master plan.
“It’s what we wished for Conant Street because the way it’s designed now is not for the residents of Maumee. It was made that way to allow for people to pass through quickly. It’s created a thoroughfare,” she said.
Road striping could begin next month for a trial run of the proposal, which calls for shrinking the number of current traffic lanes by creating a three-lane section: one lane each moving north and south and one middle lane for left-hand turns. Parallel parking will be added on both sides of the street from John to Broadway streets.
The proposal also calls for changes to side streets to mitigate potential problems from drivers cutting through to avoid Conant Street. Those changes include adding traffic circles, which force a motorist to reduce speed when passing through an intersection, whether moving straight or turning.
Jaimie Deye, who founded CV4M with Puffenberger also agrees with the proposal.
“I’m very much in favor of it,” Deye said. “Margo and I had been talking to people to see if something like this could be done along Conant and we were always told that it’s a state route and it can’t be changed, but then we met with someone who used to work with ODOT (Ohio Department of Transportation) and found out that Maumee has complete control over what happens and we were really excited to hear that.”
Deye, an architect, believes that the current atmosphere in uptown Maumee is undesirable and unsafe, especially for pedestrians, adding that it is nearly impossible to sit outside in front of Georgette’s and have a conversation because traffic is so loud. Walking along the east side of Conant Street feels especially dangerous, she said.
“The way I look at it is the phrase ‘If you build it, they will come’ from the movie Field of Dreams,” Deye said. “The way that Conant is built now is to move cars quickly through uptown, so that’s what happens. They drive through uptown and they use it as an area to get from one place to another and not necessarily in Maumee. I would rather have an uptown that is more pedestrian- and business-friendly, which I think this plan could really help with.”
Additional on-street parking is also being planned, with more than 200 new spaces proposed in the entire uptown district, including angled parking on East Wayne Street. Gathering areas with fire pits and decorative lighting are also being proposed.
Katie Meyer, the owner of Buster Brown’s Big Dog Lounge, acknowledged that the change will not be easy to make.
“I’m trying to be optimistic. We’ll have to see how it comes to fruition. I think it will be great in the long run, but it will be a culture shock for everybody,” Meyer said.
Bill Anderson, the owner of Dale’s Bar & Grill, wants to know more about the proposal.
“It seems to have a lot of advantages, but I would like to hear more discussion,” he said.
Deb Rasmusson, chief program officer of Sunshine Communities, which owns and operates Georgette’s Grounds and Gifts and Sunshine Studios, believes that the plan will ultimately benefit businesses and residents.
“I like the fact that new ideas are being brought forward and there is fresh thinking,” she said. “I think piloting a program is smart. I think Maumee needs to play catch-up with a lot of other surrounding communities that are already doing a lot of these things. You have to look to the future and be progressive and forward-thinking – and that means change.”
Rasmusson does not believe that reducing the number of cars passing by the shop will hurt business.
“I don’t think so. For us, Georgette’s and Sunshine are more destination places and the additional parking and the way it is arranged will actually be a positive for us,” she said.
Not everyone agrees that the plan is business-friendly or that it will be good for the city. The proposal has drawn significant criticism on social media from those in the community who are not in favor of reducing lanes and backing up traffic.
Jim Jarvis, an architect and owner of HJT Architect, located in the 100 block of West Wayne Street, is opposed to the plan, which he believes will adversely affect local businesses.
“In my many, many years working with clients, the underlying understanding is that what drives business is traffic count,” he said, adding that exposure and visibility are key components to a viable business.
“Sure, a lot of people drive through and not everybody is going to stop, but it’s on their path and they know where it is,” he said. “Slowing or redirecting traffic will kill business and to do it now during COVID, when businesses are already struggling, the way I see it, it’s the dead nail in the coffin. A lot of businesses won’t survive this.”
Jarvis does favor increasing parking on side streets and possibly eliminating truck traffic through uptown, but he does not believe the lanes should be reduced.
“I challenge anybody in the administration who is a certified engineer to say that this is a good idea,” he said.
Maumee administrator Patrick Burtch, who proposed the plan, says that it is a good idea.
“This is meant to be part of the master plan and the proposal offers a holistic approach to addressing several infrastructure issues facing the city,” he said. “This deserves the attention of council to at least study this and determine if it is going to work in the future. It would be remiss as public officials not to at least address or consider these alternatives.”
While he believes that visibility is important to a business, visibility alone is not the right approach. In addition, even with the proposal to reduce traffic, several thousand cars per day will continue driving through uptown, he said.
“It’s a really old planning thought, probably from the 1970s and ’80s, to think that traffic count actually creates the impetus for business. Visibility is important, but it is one of 10 or 15 factors in terms of success of a business. We have some really unique businesses in uptown – those are destination businesses,” Burtch said.
Currently, uptown Maumee accommodates approximately 33,000 cars per day and a majority travel during a three-and-half-hour period. Without making any changes, that number will likely continue to rise, he said.
“As a community, we bear some responsibility to help other communities with traffic, but at this point you are becoming disproportionately affected in a negative way,” he said. “When you see people traveling from 7:30 to 8:15 in the morning and 4:30 to 5:15 at night, those people aren’t typically stopping, and you become a highway. It says that you are actually designing a road the way you would design a parking lot for Black Friday. It doesn’t make sense to design a road for the worst-case scenario or peak hours instead of designing for the average usage.”
For the past few months, Burtch has spoken to multiple business owners and presented the plan to a variety of groups, including the Maumee Uptown Business Association and the Maumee Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.
The proposal has been discussed with ODOT staff and Burtch has confirmed that the city has full control over decisions regarding traffic on Conant Street. He also said that decisions to change the road will not adversely affect future funding from the state, as some have said it would.
Andrew Overbeck, a certified planner with MKSK, a firm in Columbus comprising architects, landscape designers and urban planners, has worked on these types of plans in other communities. He said projects such as South State Street in Westerville, Ohio, was very similar to Maumee’s plan.
“These are the things that make Main Streets work, not just for the traffic going through, but for the people who live in the community,” he said, “the folks who want to get out of their car and walk around. In the case of Maumee, this is your Main Street and I think you have to make a choice. Are you going to be a place that people drive through or are you going to be a place that people come to?”
Calming traffic and making people feel comfortable walking down a street, engaging in outdoor dining, storefront displays and shopping is the sort of atmosphere that helps drive business growth, Overbeck said.
“It’s the kind of thing that makes people want to come and spend time as opposed to simply driving through it,” he said.
Overbeck acknowledged that change can be difficult, especially when it means conceptualizing an experience and space along a corridor that doesn’t exist yet.
“I think what retailers are looking for is a chance to provide a unique experience,” he said. “All you have to do is look at strip malls across the country, or even outdoor malls like Levis Commons, that are trying to copy what a Main Street would be – and you have a chance here to create an authentic Main Street because that’s what it is.”
John Schafer, owner of The Village Idiot in uptown Maumee, was skeptical of the proposal at first, but now he’s enthused about the plan.
“At first glance, it seemed a bit counterintuitive to purposefully constrict traffic in order to create a bottleneck near the bridge. Initially, I felt that if anything, this would make potential customers avoid the uptown area, but the great majority of motorists are essentially just using the bridge as a bypass,” he said.
Schafer likes the idea of additional parking and other improvements.
“I’m sure there will be some growing pains at first, but that is to be expected whenever a change of this magnitude is rolled out,” he said. “I think the concept is to bring a more cohesive feel throughout the uptown area as well as making any foot or bike traffic a more user-friendly experience. I had expressed my concerns to Mr. Burtch and he was very accommodating with his time and his willingness to explain the project to me with much greater detail. My feeling of the project went from being a bit dubious to excitement.”
Jason Mendelsohn, who owns Jacky’s Depot and also lives on West Harrison Street in uptown Maumee, supports the proposal in theory, but isn’t sure how the plan will be executed.
“I think that less traffic and more walkability is good for businesses and visitors, but I also know what happens when Conant Street gets backed up,” he said. “I’m not sure if it will work. The thing I am worried about is that it might take them too long to make all of the necessary changes to slow down traffic hopping off of Conant Street, or that the changes won’t go far enough.”
Heather Clift, the office manager of Tamara TCM Wellness Clinic in the 100 block of West Dudley, likes the plan.
“It’s a big project and I am glad that the city is working on it. The goal to bring more foot traffic and an opportunity for mingling spaces is a really great,” Clift said. “As for the specifics for how they are doing it – that is beyond my expertise. Patrick Burtch seems very knowledgeable and dedicated to solving the challenges we face as businesses and I fully support the plan. I think it is worth it for the end result that we are trying to achieve.”
Maumee Chamber of Commerce executive director Kristin Meyer said that the plan is in line with the organization’s mission, which is to support commerce and business.
“The Maumee Chamber of Commerce is in favor of the new traffic proposal in uptown Maumee,” she said. “The goal of the project is to provide a better experience in uptown Maumee. More parking, walkability, designated gathering spaces, dining and shopping will increase business and improve the life of residents as well.”