Kenyon College intern Camryn Langley presents the results of her study on the downtown's near west side to Knox County Land Bank board members on May 5, 2023. Also pictured are Lacey Filkins, left, executive director of Experience Mount Vernon, and City Engineer Brian Ball, who is also a land bank board member.
MOUNT VERNON — In 2019, Mount Vernon City Council adopted a downtown plan detailing a long-term vision for the next 10 to 20 years.
The plan is the catalyst for a series of neighborhood assessments the Area Development Foundation coordinated over the past four years: near east side (Roundhouse District), South Vernon, west end, and the north end (North Sandusky Street).
Last Friday, Knox County Land Bank board members heard the results of the latest study relating to the area adjacent to the downtown's west side.
“With the completion of the downtown plan a few years ago, it helped us solidify some specific projects … and a specific look,” said Jeff Gottke, president of the land bank and ADF.
A few projects are completed, and others are underway, all motivated by the principles outlined in the plan. Regarding further downtown development, however, Gottke noted it cannot go farther south, north, or east.
“So really, the only opportunity for the downtown is to take that motivation and go west. Which just happens to coincide with the St. Rt. 13 project,” he told the board.
Additionally, one concern noted in the west-end assessment was that residents felt isolated due to the railroad tracks and vacant lots between them and the downtown.
With that in mind, Kenyon College intern Camryn Langley looked at the area bordered by South Mulberry, West High, and the railroad tracks. Her objective was to create a development plan that addresses economic growth and safe streets; pulls Heartland Commerce Park south and the historic feeling of South Main Street west; creates a sense of place and arrival; and stays true to Mount Vernon's charm.
In creating a plan, Langley talked with community members, reviewed historical records and ADF data, and did a walk-around visual inspection.
By the mid-19th century, South Main had developed with retailers, dentists, and other merchants. In contrast, railroad tracks dominated Langley's area of interest, which developed when the automobile became popular in the 1920s, becoming an area geared primarily toward auto usage.
Langley said the cornerstone of economic development for west downtown is a mix of uses, including housing for college students and seniors. Walkability is important, too.
“City council adopted a complete streets policy, and we really wanted as an aspect of that to be able to walk from Lewis Street to the downtown area,” Langley said.
Sidewalk ratings did not fare well.
“Sidewalks are deficient. That's a big concern,” Langley said. “There's not much green space between sidewalks and the road; sometimes sidewalks are non-existent.”
“I think sidewalks are the big thing,” board member Tyler Griffith said. “If you get people walking, they will have more sense of community. Obviously, that's not happening here.”
“What this would do is help the people who walk to IGA using the railroad tracks because they don't have a car,” City Engineer and land bank member Brian Ball said.
In rating the building structures, Langley found 10 were good quality, 11 were mediocre, and five were poor.
“I think what I am concerned about are the street-facing structures that are poor quality,” she said.
Langley feels there is a lot of underutilized space. Small parking lots, typically in front of stores, are an eyesore. Because of the trend toward auto usage, small buildings are on larger lots; additionally, there are many parking lots.
“These parking lots hardly ever reach full density, partly because there are so many of them,” Langley said. “We felt if we were able to have one structure built upwards, it would free up a lot of space.”
“Centralized parking frees up space for more stores,” agreed Gottke.
County Commissioner Teresa Bemiller, who chairs the land bank board, added that centralized parking would attract people downtown for evening events.
However, Ball noted that parking garages are typically a government endeavor with private partnerships because they are expensive and have a 40-year recovery period.
Langley also said zoning also contributes to underutilization.
Following her study, Langley came up with the following recommendations:
•Extend the Central Business (CB) zoning west from South Mechanic Street to Lewis Street. CB allows residences mixed with business, which promotes walkability.
•A new parking structure on the corner of Norton Street and either West Gambier, Vine, or Ohio Avenue
•A cost-share program with property owners for sidewalks
•Encourage residents to apply for ReHUPP loans for beautification
•Buildings should resemble the Italianate style of South Main
•Sidewalk and street repairs to follow the complete streets policy
•Build structures close together and close to the street to create a street wall
Langley said the plan will not take shape overnight.
“It's definitely something not meant for implementation immediately because businesses are there,” she said. “I think it's more like 'this is something that we would like to see, this is the design that we want to have happen here, we don't want to kick you out.'”