NYC planner says Muncie IN downtown dark

,Plan calls for more housing, two-way Walnut, green space

By Rick Yencer

MUNCIE, IN - New York City planner Gianni Longo stood in the twilight, talking about how empty and dark downtown Muncie was along with a recovery plan to turn it green, fill in the empty spaces with housing, retail and a new hotel while also restoring two way traffic to Walnut Street and eventually others.

 More 200 people heard the summary of a new downtown recovery plan after two others over the 50 years both failed and prevailed to the point of 5,500 people working where that drives a $246 million annual economy.

 Longo, brought in by the Muncie Redevelopment Commission, offered what he and other planners called were a handful of easy goals to bring people, housing and more economy to a downtown that is mostly a weekday bustling place that is dark and empty at night with less than 100 people actually living downtown.

 The plan, that spun out of the Muncie Action Plan of two years ago, is the best effort by community leaders to direct traffic and keep the ever important heart of the city alive.

 The artist rendering of tree lined streets, two-way traffic and a hotel and townhouses around Canan Commons,  YMCA and the Horizon Convention Center showed what government, banks and business could easily do by investing in their place, along with help from the federal government in new market tax credits for housing.

 Downtown interests are desperately working on a downtown hotel as the historic Roberts Hotel is converted into apartments this year. While Longo talked about financing for housing, he did not mention the economic engine where the presentation took place, the convention center. More than $1.8 million yearly in county food and beverage tax is put into that operation, and there's also economic development funds  at the facility's disposal.

 But Carl Schafer, associate director of Ball State University Museum of Art, pointed out the night life at Cornerstone Center for the Arts that has about 100,000 people annual so up. That venue is the old Masonic Temple on East Main Street and Schafer, also president of the Muncie Art and Cultural Council, wanted to make sure, as others, that art, music and entertainment also are at the table and developed as more housing and retail stores come.

 Longo spent almost 90 minutes going through findings, suggestions and goals for the plan that should be done in the next six weeks. For many, the solution is simple. Take the money and power from local banks and government in and downtown and reinvest into those apartments, stores, a hotel and other attractions.

 Even little steps, as Longo said, like pop up businesses in empty storefronts, trees and landscape along streets, fixing sidewalks, putting more two-way traffic on streets, would help bring more development. And there's plenty of vacant space, Longo said, to build apartments, like the old Sears Building on Walnut and the hotel that is supposed to be renovated for apartments this summer.

 To make any of this happen, Longo also propose the city hire a "housing czar" to get up every morning and decide how to get more building downtown besides a tax expert who can get through the federal tax code and come up with money, like the Muncie Housing Authority does, to build new housing.

 Those new market tax credits already are being sought by the MHA for a housing project on Walnut and Willard streets called Millennium West. And more are being sought for the hotel deal.

 Longo had some startling information about past studies and current conditions down that even amazed downtown business people and others.

 The downtown's generally destruction, Longo believed, was with the infamous Gruen Plan in 1968 that turned Walnut Street into a pedestrian mall and built a loop around the downtown on High and Mulberry streets.

 Retail businesses left when the Muncie Mall was built on McGalliard Road that became the main street for commerce and trade with big box retailers and hotel mecca with nearby Ball State University and its athletic facilities.

 Another downtown plan by world known planner David Lewis put traffic back on Walnut and helped stimulate other growth that included the convention center, a new city hall and jail. There also was a new bank and other money put into historic buildings with the start of apartment development.

 Longo said the city a great facility, Canan Commons, in place to help green up the downtown. And within a year, the Muncie Music Center built a new studio and store next to it and the Muncie YMCA.

 But NYC planners found out of the 56 acres of downtown property, about 70 percent was empty like all the parking lots that were built when many downtown buildings were demolished in the 1960s and 70s.

 And less than four percent of the occupied space is food and beverage about seven percent actual retail. Nearly 70 percent of the use is government, bank and other institutions.

 The two recovery pillars Longo mentioned are Walnut Street and opening it to two-way traffic that is made green by trees and landscape with new sidewalks, and the housing push to fill in the blanks or numerous parking lots with townhouses or other apartment buildings

 Dan Allen, MRC president, liked the ideas Longo offered, adding the city already took steps to improve the downtown. Mayor Dennis Tyler recently put bike lanes on downtown streets and more parking. And the MRC is putting $1 million into building facades besides having a tax increment finance district in place to fund new sidewalks like along Charles Street and improved streets.

 Longo kept talking about a trigger in the next year to get the downtown recovery going, whether it might be the hotel restoration or a new hotel next to it.

  Meanwhile, there's still 5,500 people working downtown that might want to spend a little more time and money there, especially with Ivy Tech Community College adding to the footprint and bring more youth there.




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