“We don’t want to get to a point to where we have our developments that are under way, nearing completion and then all of a sudden we don’t have a relationship to get to things,” Anniston City Planner Toby Bennington said.
“When you’re talking about these three new government complexes, you’re talking about an (influx) of a lot of people coming into downtown.”
The city needs to look at the needs of those people and create an environment that they will want to come to and stay, he said, and where retailers with a dream and a few dollars will want to open their businesses.
Bennington took to the downtown streets with landscape architects and planners from Goodwyn Mills and Cawood last week to look at improving the face of downtown as well as access to the sites that are both planned and already in existence.
Goodwyn Mills and Cawood is doing the design and managing the construction of the city’s DHR building, which was the impetus for looking more critically at the downtown area.
The area that Bennington and the firm are analyzing is bordered to the south by the site for the proposed for the new federal courthouse, the Chalk Line site to the west, Zinn Park and the site of the new justice center to the north and Noble Street to the east. That will be the largest center of activity, but the planning will also take in adjoining areas, he said.
Betsy Bean, executive director of the Spirit of Anniston, which is charged with promoting Anniston’s downtown, said the planning is critical.
“Having all these dominoes now kind of in place, then it’s the perfect time to do a master plan,” Bean said.
Parking, public gathering places, new construction and preservation of Anniston’s historical buildings are all important pieces of a plan for the downtown area, she said.
The public buildings are important to include in a plan, but so are things like the Anniston Civil Rights and Heritage Trail, Chief Ladiga Trail and the bike trails at Coldwater Mountain, she said.
“It’s all about the link,” Bean said.
The downtown needs to be more pedestrian-friendly to invite people to stop and eat or shop, Bean added, and it needs small gathering spaces with seating and things like fountains or garden spots.
A downtown configuration installed in 1977 had features matching that description (without the fountains). But along Noble Street, at least, the seating and the largest of the planters were removed in 1994-’95.
This time around, green spaces are being planned for the Chalk Line site and the Justice Center area.
“It’s very key to have, you’ve got large gathering areas such as Zinn Park for large activities, but it’s also very important to have smaller areas,” he said. “It gives you a place where you can stop, take a break.”
Mayor Gene Robinson, who owns Western Auto on Noble Street in the heart of downtown, is glad to see some discussion of planning because it’s crucial for the prosperity of the merchants, he said. As a business owner, he has some particular types of businesses he’d like to see populate the downtown area.
“I’d love to see a music shop,” he said. “I’d love to see a bakery. I’d love to see more sandwich shops … We want a complete downtown again, like we had in yesteryear.”
Councilman David Dawson also believes a master plan is necessary to development downtown.
“It’s a roadmap as to how to get where you’re going and it sort of is a vision of the things that you would like to have there,” he said. “I really think a master plan is something we need to do just so that people can see and buy into (it).”
Dawson would like to see an entertainment district created in the downtown area to keep bars and other nighttime venues corralled. Dawson would like to see renovations of Calhoun Theater and live entertainment on its stage included in the development plans. He would also like to see small, unique shops to continue the downtown development as a destination location.
But Dawson said any plan has to include security.
“We must get people to buy into the downtown, and to do that, we’ve got to make sure that our downtown is safe,” Dawson said.
Bennington said right now he is working on a proposal, not a plan. The specifics will come later after input from the entire community.
“We’re trying to plant a seed so that we can initiate this planning process in conjunction and in light of all these developments,” Bennington said. “I know the city wants to address this topic.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.