Friendswood envisions downtown makeover
Friendswood residents got a glimpse of what could be as the Friendswood Downtown Economic Development Corp. hosted the second of three meetings laying out a tentative blueprint for downtown revitalization.
The Downtown District Improvement Plan encompasses a variety of projects and is part of the city’s ongoing discussion on how to turn downtown into a retail and activity hub.
“We’re trying to create activity in the district to attract more activity and developers,” said Laura Griffith of Lauren Griffith Associates, a Houston-based landscaping firm hired by the corporation.
The objective at this stage, said Griffith, is to identify projects and decide where to focus revitalization efforts.
“The first challenge is to get all the citizens to reach consensus about the direction they want to go,” Griffith said.
That process began with a series of stakeholder meetings that resulted in studies and surveys sent out to residents.
Those inquiries resulted in more than 1,000 responses that shaped the first designing draft, which was presented at the mmost recent meeting on July 26, Griffiths said.
Priorities listed by respondents include:
cultivating small business and attracting more restaurants
expanding pedestrian access by improving sidewalks and creating more bike trails
Developing better branding for downtown district business and attractions, and
addressing traffic issues through measures including intersection improvements.
These points highlighted the bulk of the designs and some of those attending the meeting, like former City Council candidate Phil Ratisseau, were enthusiastic, but wondered how the project would attract enough community support to move forward.
Proposed improvements include preliminary cost estimates. For instance, one possible project encompassing the creation of bike routes could cost $35,000-85,000; another package includes intersection improvements costing between $750,000 and $1 million.
The corporation will host a third meeting on Thursday, Aug. 23 at 7 p.m. at Friendswood City Hall.
Without any secured funding, the projects, at this first design phase, serve as a wish list, Ratisseau said.
“I like some of it, but there’s a lot of question, a lot of ifs, and the biggest piece is the funding and (community) involvement,” he said.
Projects on a major scale also need community support and enthusiasm for momentum, added Ratisseau, and he’s not sure that can happen with a city as sprawling as Friendswood.
“You get outside of the people that really love downtown, but in our city there’s a whole lot of people who never come downtown, or don’t care about downtown,” he said. “Whatever you do, is it going to be sustainable, is it worth it? I know you have to start somewhere, but what do we want? That’s where we’re at, the city is trying to decide what we want.”
For Michelle Thompson, the proposed designs represent what she was looking for when she had her family moved to Friendswood from Michigan five years ago.
“I love it,” she said. “I do realize that you have to be patient because the money is not there; so if we can keep the momentum up, these plans can be wonderful for the city.”
Thompson said she was excited about the idea of a centralized downtown area that people can come to with their families to eat, shop and find entertainment.
“I like idea of identifying a downtown area, having a consistent plan so that you know when you come here it is different than other parts of town and the hub where you find activities and things to do for the family……we need that,” Thompson said.
“It’s a very close-knit community,” Griffith said, “and everybody feels very strongly about keeping that small-town feel, and so that has informed all our decision-making about which projects we want to move forward with.”
The biggest roadblock, said Griffith, will be funding and timing.
“The challenge is always money,” she said. “We’ve identified great projects, everybody seems to be on-board with those, we have not had anyone object at this point.”
The city’s EDC has limited funds, getting one-eighth of 1 percent sales tax revenue, which adds up to less than half a million dollars, Griffith said.
“What we’re trying to do is seek other kinds of funding opportunities where we can leverage that money as matching funds to bigger grants or other kind of funds and then build on that to create project that can be implemented sooner,” Griffith said.
“The scale and the character (of any projects) need to be true to the identity of Friendswood,” she said. “We don’t want it to look like any other suburb; it needs to be really evocative of Friendswood’s soul.”