Downtown looks toward the future

City officials are hoping to revive area while bringing in more students

With more changes to Muncie's downtown on the horizon, city officials and developers are trying to close the gap between the area and Ball State's campus.

The Muncie Redevelopment Commission had a three-hour open house Thursday to give community members an opportunity to share their ideas and see the vision that city planners have in mind, a vision they call "Downtown Now!"

In the empty building that used to be occupied by Toys Forever Toy Shop, residents could look at detailed maps and write notes offering improvements they want to see to the downtown area.

Bruce Baldwin, director of Muncie Redevelopment Commission, said the overall goal for revitalizing downtown is to improve what is already there.

"We want to implement some traffic changes, and we want to make it user-friendly," Baldwin said. "We want to bring people downtown, Ball State [students] included."

City officials and developers are hoping to transform the sometimes negative perception that stands between downtown Muncie and the university community.

Although there are no specific plans involving the addition of Ball State students into the area, Baldwin said the city is looking to have a dialogue with the university regarding the future.

"We think there could be a great downtown relationship," Baldwin said. "Not that we don't have one now, but we just need to capitalize on what Ball State can offer and make them aware of how the community, and specifically downtown, can be a benefit to Ball State."

To help get the ball rolling, the Redevelopment Commission brought in the help of design firm ACP Visioning + Planning, Ltd., which includes New York City architect Gianni Longo.

Longo, who has facilitated and designed visions and strategic plans for several areas including the Metropolitan DC area and regions of Knoxville and Birmingham, was brought to Muncie with the hopes that he could help target problem areas and improve upon them.

Areas that Muncie residents labeled as "weak" or "negative" included the 100 block of Main and Jackson streets, the downtown gateway to Muncie that has numerous bail bonds offices and the corrections facility, as well as the lack of greenspace and utilization of the White River front.

Longo said downtown needs to be a place that students and individuals want to visit.

"First and foremost, the downtown has to be vital ...," Longo said. "If downtown doesn't do that, it's going to be very difficult for students to come here."

Longo said the initiatives to improve the downtown area were not created specifically with students in mind, but were designed to make it a more attractive place.

"When you do that, then it becomes more natural, for students in particular, to come here," he said.

Longo said he also hopes to connect Muncie's existing bike paths to the downtown area - something he believes would attract more students.

Baldwin said there is a misconception that parking downtown is a problem. The area is not designed in a way that causes people to stop and enjoy the area.

"We really want people to slow down and have them take a look at downtown instead of them getting on that loop and just going around like a merry-go-round," Baldwin said.

Longo said one of the city's main weaknesses is the number of one-way streets downtown.

"What one-way streets do is run people through downtown instead of to downtown," Longo said. "Instead of making downtown a destination, you're making it just a place to go through, and so that's a very big issue."

Zeke Mermell, an urban designer who is working with ACP on Downtown Now!, said it is important to make downtown an are where students want to visit.

"We want to provide some mechanisms that create a welcome mat into the downtown that will hopefully allow [students] to add to the vitality and make the downtown more of a used space," Mermell said.

Mermell said the lack of walkability in the area is an issue, and revitalizing it is good for everyone involved.

"If you provide more services, commercial, retail, etc.," Mermell said," then that will be good for the health of Muncie in general."

Longo hopes the relationship between the university and downtown is something that will improve in the future, but it might take a few generations of students to accomplish. Younger students need to hear from older students that it's a worthwhile area, he said.

"We need for students to come downtown, get used to it and like what downtown offers," he said.


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