Where to now?

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Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 12:00 am

Thirty-eight members of the Ralston community showed up to City Hall Aug. 28 to hear some ideas for Ralston’s future and express their opinions on where the city should go in its next 20 years.

Jeff Ray, Planning Department Manager for JEO Consulting Group, explained that the planning process has four stages: profile, envision, achieve, and implement. The profile component was completed earlier this summer and Wednesday’s town hall meeting was part of the envision phase of Ralston’s Comprehensive Planning process.

Douglas Bisson of HDR joined Ray to guide the meeting. Ray and Bisson said the current trend in city planning leans toward “walkable urban neighborhoods.”

They cited a growing number of senior citizens, many of whom can no longer drive, as well as an increasing number of younger people who want to be able to walk or bike most places they go.

Creating this kind of community would require increasing housing opportunities as well as growing new businesses and opportunities for entertainment. Both men frequently referred to “creating more rooftops,” and many of those rooftops would house multi-use buildings that could contain a retail store on one level and housing on another, among other things.

One idea was to create a multi-way boulevard that would run along L Street from 72nd Street to 84th Street.

This boulevard would include a “slip lane,” which could be used for on-street parking to allow people to stop and visit local businesses. Ideally, the street would be lined with businesses and multi-use buildings, with trees and shrubs between the buildings and the street. This would serve to clearly outline one of the boundary lines of the City of Ralston and create a gateway for those entering.

Bisson emphasized there was nothing in the plan saying businesses currently existing in this space would have to go.

“We absolutely don’t want to push anyone out,” he said. “The plan would be phased and long-term. However, it allows us to create design guidelines, so that everything being built in this space can have a similar look.”

Another idea was for an area called “The Hinge,” running from the Ralston Arena into the city’s downtown area. This would be filled with new businesses to keep arena visitors interested and draw them into the city before or after the event they had come to the arena to attend.

Part of the plan for The Hinge included creating a unique Market Street area, different from surrounding cities, and turning a former grain elevator into an outdoor entertainment space and a backdrop for laser light shows or concerts.

One of the major themes of the night was making it clearer to passersby where exactly Ralston begins and ends, as most people think Ralston is much bigger than it actually is. To this end, a park would be established at the corner of 72nd and Harrison streets to serve as an inviting entrance to the city. This green space would also improve property value.

One of the biggest questions of the night was a possible industrial park retrofit. The design team from HDR had two possible options for a space near 77th and Harrison streets. The area could either be cleaned up and used as new industrial lots and a buffer to the neighborhoods, or it could be turned into a new neighborhood center.

In the latter option, the space would include townhouses, apartments, and mixed-use buildings around a public square.

Bisson described the idea as “density done positively.”

One-person and two-person households are the most growing demographic, according to Bisson and Ray, and this development would in-fill housing that would appeal to them. “Ralston can capitalize and position the city to take advantage of these demographics,” Bisson said.

Mayor Don Groesser cited the new apartments that were built near the arena in Ralston as a perfect example of this trend. He said that the buildings are nearly completely full but that very few children live there; almost the entire complex contains 25-to-35-year-old singles and couples.

“It gives them access to entertainment at the arena, hills to jog, and bars within walking distance so they can drink without having to figure out rides home,” Groesser said.

Although Ray and Bisson were both quick to emphasize that Ralston is at an advantage, having existing events and businesses from which to build, they also noted that the downtown area could use some help to become the kind of place that attracts citizens and visitors at least 21 hours a day to come out and spend money.

Bisson mentioned that the downtown buildings are too closed off, featuring mainly blank, windowless walls. Many businesses downtown are also part of the service industry, rather than being retail stores, which doesn’t make them destinations.

Once the meeting was open for community comment, citizens had plenty of ideas for Ralston’s future. Transportation was a key theme, with ideas including an Amtrak train to Lincoln, better access to bus routes, and bike trails. The lack of parking in the city was also raised as an issue.

One man at the meeting brought the Affordable Care Act into the conversation. “Small businesses are getting socked in the teeth with Obamacare,” he said. “We just have to hope it goes away, but, other than that, do you have any comment on how that affects your plans?”

Ray said the community simply had to try to make the best conditions possible for small businesses to grow. “The older, smaller buildings in Ralston are perfect for start-ups,” he said. “Small businesses will always be the backbone of the economy.”

The Comprehensive Planning team will continue to take public ideas and comments through www.envisionralston.com, and further steps in moving the plan forward will occur in October and November, until the final draft is submitted in December.

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