Consultants from Urban Design Studios (UDS) got their first taste of controversy, Brookings style, Thursday when a focus group discussion on traffic circulation and parking turned into a lengthy debate on a proposed highway couplet through town.

The debate went on so long, in fact, that downtown parking was never discussed. Al Zelinka, a community planner with UDS, felt the subject was important enough to be rescheduled to another focus group discussion.

The focus group was one of 15 presentations spread over four days in the Brookings Town Center Master Plan Community Immersion 2002.

The immersion was scheduled to be the first and most intensive public involvement effort to occur during the six-month Brookings Town Center Master Plan process, and it lived up to its billing.

Urban Design Studio of Irvine, Calif., was chosen by the Brookings Downtown Redevelopment Committee to design a master plan for the downtown area.

Perhaps no proposal has the potential to impact the future of Brookings downtown as much as the couplet, and citizens on both sides of the issue reacted strongly to the hot-button topic at the focus group.

It was by no means the only proposal for reducing traffic congestion in the downtown area, however, and congestion was not the only traffic problem identified.

Citizens complained about excessive speed, too many big trucks, a downtown that isnt pedestrian or bike friendly, side streets that are below standard, a lack of clear traffic signs and signals, and a lack of parking.

They also complained about poorly marked pedestrian crossings and lane lines, the difficulty of getting onto the highway, visual obstructions, having to back out of parking spaces, the conditions of the roads and sidewalks, and trash, bark and woodchips on the highway.

Citizens identified nearly every intersection in town as a problem. Cited were Oak Street and U.S. Highway 101, because of school traffic, the theater crossing, and intersections near the post office at noon.

They also cited intersections used by mill workers when shifts let out, at Fifth Street and the highway because of City Hall and the markets, the five-point intersection at Railroad and Wharf streets, the triangle below Azalea Park and streets near the library.

Didnt we get all of them? said a citizen.

One suggested solution was retaining the two-way flow of traffic on Railroad Street, but upgrading the street to highway standards to encourage more residents to use it instead of U.S. Highway 101/Chetco Avenue.

Another was to make Railroad Street a business loop or truck route to make Chetco Avenue more pedestrian-friendly.

The couplet would make Railroad Street a southbound arm of U.S. Highway 101.

Another suggestion was to reorient the downtown so Chetco Avenue is a thoroughfare and the retail businesses are a block south of it.

One citizens said if on-street parking was moved to parking lots, Chetco Avenue would be wide enough for turn lanes, which would ease the flow of traffic and make a couplet unnecessary.

Zelinka asked people to name the challenges and strengths of each option.

The first option was fixing and upgrading Railroad Street by covering the open ditches, installing good lighting, and clearly marking lanes.

Positives for the option included an increase in safety for motorists and pedestrians, traffic relief for Chetco Avenue, relatively low cost to implement, and an incentive with curb appeal for new businesses.

Citizens said that option would be quieter and impact residences less than making Railroad Street a truck route.

Others believed it wouldnt change the traffic pattern or relieve traffic on Chetco Avenue.

As for turning Railroad Street into a business loop, some citizens thought the truck traffic would be too noisy for residences.

Tim Patterson said Railroad Street is zoned for business, and the residences will eventually be pushed out.

Zelinka said it was fair to say the option would have an impact on residences, at least in the short term.

If truck traffic increases, he said, what is the chance of downtown businesses moving that way?

More commercial businesses will develop there, said Vicki Nuss, not retail.

Zelinka said he thought the city wanted to create a business district there. He said businesses trying to attract pedestrians wouldnt want to locate along a truck route.

One citizen said the city had planned to make its business district north of Railroad Street, not on it.

Another said big trucks would have trouble negotiating the 90-degree turns it would take to access Railroad Street, and questioned the purpose of taking trucks off U.S. Highway 101.

Susan Jackson, a community planner with UDS, said if businesses were reoriented off Chetco Avenue, and it became a major thoroughfare, the town would be divided in two.

Positives for the option of taking parking off Chetco Avenue included providing room for turn lanes to allow trucks to progress through town.

That could increase the velocity of traffic, said one citizen. Another said it would only smooth the flow of traffic, not speed it up.

Another felt it wouldnt provide enough traffic congestion relief once the population grows.

Dr. Jay Patel said, It sounds easy, but where would you park the cars?

A citizen said the city would have to build parking lots. Zelinka said that would require the city buy land. A citizen said there were some eyesore buildings that could be removed.

Jackson said removing parking would put traffic lanes closer to the sidewalks. A citizen suggested the sidewalks could be widened, or bike lanes installed.

One said on-street parking was needed for residents who live above downtown businesses.

Another said on-street parking could be removed during certain times of the day.

Why turn the whole downtown area into a freeway? said a citizen.

A business owner said her customers would not stop and walk two blocks in the rain from a parking lot.

A lot of us want to be on 101, said a business owner. We hope to attract customers to stop.

Some cant because they cant park, said another. He said he never shops at downtown businesses because parking is so difficult.

Zelinka said because the width of Chetco Avenue varies through the downtown area, on-street parking could be retained in some places.

One citizen said the state would someday force a couplet through Brookings. He said turning Railroad Street into a business loop would help prepare for that day.

An official from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) said, We understood the couplet interest came from the community. Nothing is set in stone. The funding is not even in existence. Thats down the road.

Zelinka said when couplets are designed with only transportation in mind, they are bad for business.

Sooner or later something will have to be developed here, said Zelinka. I think a couplet is where youre headed, but it may not have been done with a sensitive, community-based approach.

One citizen said when she travels, she stops only at businesses she can see from the road.

She said she doesnt circle around towns with couplets to look for restaurants or motels.

I think it (a couplet) would hurt economics in this area, she said.

Dayle Niemie said a couplet would force children to cross two major highways to get anywhere.

Nuss asked what kind of time frame ODOT was talking about, since it had no funding.

The official said ODOT has the funding to reconstruct U.S. Highway 101 through town to modern standards, including new sidewalks. That should be completed in the summer of 2004, she said.

She said ODOT will also complete a study by then of the impacts of turning Railroad Street into a couplet. She said part of that study will be to find out how citizens feel about the idea.

The official said if the city applies for couplet funding now, there could be something available after 2006.

One citizen compared the downtown with a kitchen that everyone gathers in at a party. He said with a couplet there would be no kitchen to gather in.

Zelinka said the point is to build Railroad Street to standards now that could be utilized later, if it ever becomes part of a couplet.

One citizen said, People wont want to put money into redeveloping their businesses if they are going to get torn down or bypassed.

Zelinka said, Were talking about planning for what is today, and for what could come tomorrow.

Were not necessarily saying were advocating a couplet. Were saying think about what youd want.

Brookings City Planner John Bischoff said, This study is to make the downtown interesting enough so people stop, couplet or not. If it is too crowded, people wont stop. Zelinka said that happened to Lincoln City.

One citizen said the couplet has been debated for 20 years, but the discussion had caused the group to miss the parking issue.

Zelinka said, It is important for us to be in touch with the pulse of the community on the couplet.

We want to make sure the communitys values are articulated. We need to understand the issue to do our jobs.