Last Thursday, with a heavy police presence nearby, community members met at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church on Hale to hear what their neighborhood could become. The team of planning consultants presented a vision that included tree-lined boulevards, a farmer's market, attractive businesses, and that holy grail of Midtown retail, a grocery store.
"The sad fact is that grocery stores don't come in 5,000 square feet anymore," said urban economist Ed Starkie. "But the area can support a 50,000-square-foot grocery store. ... We submitted our drawings to Kroger, and the impression is that this is not impossible. We have the numbers to prove it."
The plan also envisions a pedestrian gateway into Overton Park, public gardens where the construction of Sam Cooper Blvd. created small leftover parcels of land, and a less broad Broad Avenue with diagonal street parking to help control traffic and create growth opportunities for surrounding businesses.
"The neighborhood would be framed by two apartment buildings," said Starkie. "Behind that would be townhouses. We spoke to ... the developers who did Harbor Town. They said, is the land available today?"
The neighborhood's success might even foretell the future of the city. The vision for Binghamton (the area mysteriously dropped the "p" long ago) began when the Memphis and Shelby County division of planning and development held a "charrette," a public planning session on the area. The division is currently reviewing and amending the entire city's zoning regulations to create a Unified Development Code.
"We want to allow things like livable work space. Our zoning regulations are very suburban. If you were to build a new building here," said Louise Mercuro, gesturing to the Broad Avenue artist's studio where the team worked through the week, "you'd have to have a 30-foot setback. The comprehensive plan to change the codes should promote revitalization and redevelopment."
The division looked at five areas of the city and ultimately chose the Broad Avenue corridor as its test case.
"We wanted a specific laboratory that has every problem or opportunity in the city," said Mercuro, deputy director of the division of planning and development. "This neighborhood was perfect for us. This area has all the land uses. It has new community investment with the new Binghamton elementary school, and the Binghamton police station.
"Then there's the whole question of Sam Cooper. Not only does it create high-speed traffic, it cuts the neighborhood in half. Public policy made that decision and it effectively made this area a ghost town."
After an opening session, 80 community members spent an entire day designing the area. They broke into eight groups and, using a current map and a tracing-paper overlay, each group drew what its members wanted to see. For the rest of the week, the design studio was open, allowing community members to drop in and talk to the consultants.
"This is planning from the ground up," said Mercuro. "Normally when we do a comprehensive plan, we as a staff or the City Council come up with a plan. Then we go out in the neighborhood and present it and ask people if they agree or disagree. Most disagree, because they don't understand it. This started with the citizens."
Many citizens had the same concerns: vacant lots, walkable neighborhoods, and fixing confusing traffic patterns created by Sam Cooper.
"For me, it's as important to deal with economic development as with the design," said Mercuro. "We're trying to attract businesses back here."
Even so, when the draft was presented last Thursday night, most of the talk was about trees and attractive streetscapes. But maybe business will follow. If Summer Avenue or Broad felt a little safer, more businesses might be drawn to that part of town. Anything would be better than it is now.
Before I went to the design session, I did a quick check of the map. I'm not a complete stranger to Broad and figured it would be easy to find. It wasn't.
When I told people at the charrette, they nodded in recognition. "When they built Sam Cooper, this area really got buried," said Robert Montague, the executive director of the Binghampton Development Corporation.
It will be interesting to see what the area will look like in 10 or even two years.
"There's a lot of potential here," said Starkie. "That's how we feel."