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SERPENTINE SOLUTION: How a Colorado model inspired Hendersonville's downtown revitalization

Which is which? In 1962 Grand Junction, Colorado, pioneered the serpentine streetscape that Hendersonville adopted 13 years later for its own downtown makeover. The plan narrowed the street from four lanes to two, added mid-block crosswalks, replaced para Which is which? In 1962 Grand Junction, Colorado, pioneered the serpentine streetscape that Hendersonville adopted 13 years later for its own downtown makeover. The plan narrowed the street from four lanes to two, added mid-block crosswalks, replaced para

In 1963 a downtown revitalization project known as Operation Foresight transformed Grand Junction, Colorado, and became a national model for stemming the flight of shoppers to the suburbs. Twelve years later, a group of city leaders in Hendersonville used the model to completely update the streetscape of our Main Street here. This week we launch our two-part report on how Grand Junction invented the serpentine solution and how city leaders adopted the S-shaped model here to save downtown for generations.

GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado — Grand Junction, Colorado, is higher than Hendersonville, larger and younger. But like Hendersonville, Grand Junction is a mountain bike, hiking, outdoorsy destination. We have round mountains. Grand Junction has flat mesas. Grand Junction has fewer restaurants downtown, less outdoor dining and more bicycle shops.

But in a first glance at Grand Junction’s Main Street there is no mistaking the common DNA. It’s as if we’re looking at our mother, and in many ways, we are. Grand Junction pioneered the revitalization of small to mid-sized downtowns when it boldly and aggressively reinvented itself based on narrow lanes weaving through four retail blocks in a gentle S-curve.
With a population of around 60,000 in a county of 150,000, Grand Junction serves as the commercial hub for a 38-county area of southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah.
By the early 1960s, leaders in Grand Junction were aware that suburban malls were coming. The city’s wide Main Street, like Hendersonville’s, was an attraction for teenagers cruising the main drag. (In Hendersonville, cars full of teenagers cruised from the Hasty Tasty to Brock’s and back all night long.) GJ planters1In 1961, Grand Junction hired a dynamic new city manager who was both politically astute, energetic and visionary. Joe Lacy clarified the lines of authority between his office and the City Council and got a seven-member downtown committee appointed. Within a year, by September 1961, the committee had laid a startingly novel plan on the table. Grand Junction would become a pioneer of the pedestrian mall approaches to Main Street, though not a model that barred vehicular traffic, which was tried with limited success in some communities. The city would zigzag the street, narrow the travel lanes from four to two and plant lots of trees. The City Council studied the plans, took public input, conducted consumer surveys and finally agreed on a five-phase solution it called “Operation Foresight.” In Grand Junction, there’s a monument to the leaders who turned Main Street into a “Shopping Park.” Joe Lacy smiles in bronze just off Main Street.
The work included replacing the stormwater and sewer lines under the street, reconstructing Main Street and several other downtown streets, providing free parking off but near Main, encouraging upgrade of storefronts and facades and construct attractive well-lighted facades from nearby parking lots to Main Street and providing rest rooms and information centers. (Hendersonville is opening the first city-built rest rooms this fall on Fifth Avenue West.) The four-lane 66-foot wide thoroughfare “will be transformed into a series of gentle S-curves,” Lacy wrote in an article published in the November 1962 issue of The American City. “pedestrian safety, angle parking, shrubbery and benches will keynote the new look.” The safety and convenience factors would eliminate jaywalking “since the raised shrubbery planters will bar pedestrian movement” except at the mid-block crosswalks and intersections. A 10-foot maneuvering lane behind angle parking spaces “will provide ample visibility and minimize parking accidents.” The 24-foot midblock crosswalks would replace the 48-foot cross-traffic dash while passenger loading zones would eliminate double parking. The city imposed a tax of 18.7 cents per $100 valuation to pay for the improvements over 10 years.
An aspiring photographer, Lacy took pictures of the present-day rundown Main Street and added slides of the renderings that showed a new downtown with trees and flowers and the undulating traffic pattern. He took the slide projector everywhere.
“My brother and I carried that machine all over the place,” one of Lacy’s sons said in an account of the downtown revitalization published in 2012. “Dad took it everywhere.”

Grand Junction’s experience seemed to be led more directly by the city manager and council than ours. In Hendersonville, a group of local civic leaders, led by Jody Barber and Kermit Edney, did most of the planning work and sales job. After traveling to Grand Junction to see the successful streetscape first hand, they pitched the idea to the Hendersonville City Commission, as it was called in 1973, and, significantly, volunteered to pay for it through a special downtown taxing district.
In Grand Junction, the downtown committee needed 50 percent of the downtown property owners to endorse the plan, which would cost $1 million. As it turned out, the committee was stacked to make that likely; its members owned 50% of the downtown property. Committee members called on every property owner anyway and wound up handing in a petition at City Hall that 71 percent of the owners had signed. The work would soon start.
As Hendersonville found 12 years later, you don’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. On Grand Junction’s Main Street, shoppers dodged piles of sand and gravel, sometimes climbed over slabs of concrete and scraped their legs on rebar. Shopkeepers opened their backdoors to the public and made them look inviting. Chris Hobbs, a retired teacher, was 12 years old when the city made the streetscape change.
“People weren’t happy about the plans for a curved street and merchants were worried they would lose business,” she told the local historians Vera Mulder and Ken Johnson for the Operation Foresight history. “Then, after the repairs were done, everyone began to really like what they had been done.”


Bold gamble succeeds

The major changes — wider streets, new utilities, new pavement and the serpentine of the primary retail blocks — were done by the Christmas shopping season. Shoppers poured into the downtown, so many that Grand Junction police sent patrol officers to direct traffic.
“Seen in the maze of cars,” the (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel reported, “were license plates from Utah, Delta and Montrose counties and from as far away as Durango.”
Grand Junction’s bold gamble was a success, and it was almost immediately recognized and honored. Based in large part on Operation Foresight, the city won Look magazine’s All America Cities award in 1962.
“Few cities would attempt a major downtown street redevelopment without a heavy transfusion of federal or state funds,” the magazine said. “Grand Junction, with a population of just 20,500, did.”
The city’s solution to stem the flight of stores and shoppers to the suburbs continued to gain national and even worldwide attention. At least 12 national newspapers coast to coast sent reporter to chronicle the S-shaped success story. A city clerk used pins to mark cities that had called for information, and bought Operation Foresight booklets for $4 each. In 1963, the number of orders had topped 100.
When asked how Grand Junction had done it, Lacy, the city manager, said involving everyone was one key.
“Our other secret is that we acted in time,” he said. “Grand Junction didn’t have to rise from corruption, blight or economic chaos. Our people recognized the symptoms of stagnation and they got to work.”
With its trees, flowers and mid-block crosswalk, Grand Junction was not just a pleasant “shopping park.” It was an economic success story, too. Retail sales jumped by $4 million in 1963. Two years later, the popular national radio commentator Paul Harvey (“Good day!”) praised the independent can-do spirit that made it happen.
“You never saw a shabbier downtown than downtown Grand Junction five years ago,” Harvey said in the March 1965 broadcast. “When the folks of Grand Junction decided they wanted a new downtown, they built it with their own hands … They tore apart 27 blocks, tore up all of Main Street, uprooted old sewers and streets, and then put those 27 blocks back together again.
“Money? They taxed themselves for it,” Harvey said. “And when they put the tax to a vote, they said yes, 13 to 1.” (As Hendersonville did, too, when the downtown property owners went to the City Commission and volunteered to pay the new special taxing district levy.)


Grand Junction refreshes the streetscape

 

In Grand Junction, Trenton Prall and Brandon Stam guided me a downtown tour. Grand Junction feels like a bigger city in the blocks around Main Street, with more tall buildings and a central business district that spreads farther out than ours. But on Main Street, there’s no mistaking the DNA of Hendersonville.
Brandon Stam and Trent Prall lead downtown development in Grand Junction.Brandon Stam and Trent Prall lead downtown development in Grand Junction.Like our town, Grand Junction has seen the need to upgrade the streetscape it finished in 1963. In 2010, Prall, who is the city public works director, supervised the project to upgrade Main Street, redo planters and add more new benches.
“We narrowed the street even further,” Prall says. “We had 24-foot crosswalks and we’re down to 20-feet, so our lanes through here are 10 foot and that’s it.”
While Hendersonville is still struggling to recruit its first new downtown hotel in generations, Grand Junction has four, with a fifth scheduled to break ground in a year next to Two Rivers Convention Center. The city is partnering with a developer who will renovate the convention center.
“When they build the other hotel, they will build an 8,500-square-foot junior ballroom that we will program through the convention center in exchange for us giving them the land right next to the convention center,” Prall says. “When that’s all said and done, we should be able to accommodate conventions of six to seven hundred people within a block of the convention center. We had to get to a critical mass to get to that five to seven hundred person conferences.”
A residential development will add 36 townhomes, says Stam, who is executive director of the Downtown Development Authority. Also in the works is a four-story commercial building with Class A office space and a six- to eight-story mixed use building.
Grand Junction has an aggressive public art program, with more variety than our Bearfootin’ Bears and overhead banners. The downtown public art program, called Art on the Corner, placed 13 new sculptures in 2017-18. The sculptures rotate out every year and they’re for sale. The city also has plenty of permanent public art pieces on its Main Street. There are festivals and street markets, too. There’s even a downtown Rhythm & Brews concert series, which we did not copy. Theirs just started last year.
Public investment downtown since 2001 totals $96.4 million, including an $8.4 million parking garage, the $7.2 million Main Street refresh, $15 million in convention center renovations, a $9.6 million Main Street performing arts center renovation and a $24 million police station.


More like a park than a city

Bruce Benge, the third generation owner of Benge’s shoe store in the 500 block of Main Street, has been active in downtown revitalization and promotion for more than 20 years.
GJBruceBenge'You don't change, you don't grows,' third generation shoe store owner Bruce Benge says.“We’ve had two re-dos in my 44 years of being here,” says Benge, 69. “It’s a nice vibe, it’s kind of an outdoor vibe where you don’t feel like you’re in a city so much as in a park. That’s why they call it a shopping park. The serpentine slows down the traffic so people aren’t barreling down through here. We’ve also got art on the corner, which has really added to it.”
He recalls that the 1962 project was messy but worthwhile.
“We used our back door a lot and it really worked,” he says. “My dad was 100 percent behind it. He thought it was a great idea (and was in favor), and some merchants weren’t. ‘Oh, you’re going to take the parking. Oh, change. Oh, change.’ You don’t change, you don’t grow. As the downtown goes, a lot of the community goes.”
Bruce’s grandfather Bertrand started the story on 1911 and handed it down to Bruce’s father, Harry. Bruce has served on the Downtown Business District or the Downtown Development Authority for more than 25 years. He has gladly paid the special downtown district tax, which Colorado did not enact until after the original serpentine work.
“It’s definitely the way to go, because everybody pays. Before when it was dues oriented, the ‘no change’ people (would say), ‘I’m not going to pay for that.’ A business improvement district is the right thing. I think the statistic is 95 percent of the communities that do it, they continue to do it. They never go back.”

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Next: How Hendersonville used the Grand Junction model for the downtown revitalization in 1976.