If downtown represents the heart of a community, then main street is the key artery bringing it to life.
Elected officials and community leaders in Blowing Rock, NC are addressing this challenge head-on as they seek to improve a vital corridor connecting heavily-trafficked Highway 321 with the town’s downtown Main Street. Back in 2014, town leaders identified Sunset Drive as an essential corridor that should be strategically maintained. The town established plans to replace aging water and sewer lines within the Sunset Drive right-of-way. While those infrastructure improvements were pursued primarily to improve the lifespan of the road, town leaders also seized the opportunity to use this planned construction period as a chance to update the aesthetics and functionality of the corridor.
Far more than a static asset, a community’s downtown is a living representation of who it is and what it values most.
As a facilitator, one of the biggest pitfalls to avoid in community planning is to enter the process with a predetermined outcome in mind. It is important to approach the planning process with an open mind and to be open to mid-course corrections. Throughout the Sunset Dr. Streetscape planning process, DbD has placed a premium on soliciting input from community members. The initial scope of the project was expanded to hear from more people in the community because a well-informed plan will ultimately lead to better post-plan outcomes. Our nimbleness in terms of the project’s scope allowed us to change paths accordingly and adapt our stakeholder engagement process. Unanimity is never the goal when it comes to soliciting community input, but we believe that broadening our community outreach methods will ultimately result in greater consensus about the future look, feel, and function of Sunset Drive.
Function and Aesthetic
Roads are a critical community asset for all the obvious reasons, but gateways that showcase a community’s curb appeal are doubly important. Gateways serve the dual function of both transporting people and providing newcomers with a crucial first impression of a community. Sunset Drive connects a newly-updated portion of Highway 321 with Blowing Rock’s bustling downtown Main Street. It is a gateway that can ill-afford to become an eyesore. The design work that we are leading in Blowing Rock is equal parts function and aesthetics. The longevity of the road will be enhanced via the planned infrastructure updates, while aesthetic improvements like improved lighting, gateway signage, and other streetscape improvements have been identified through community input sessions as a top priority. These streetscape improvements will stylistically mesh with the existing historical style in the downtown area in order to help establish a level of continuity in the aesthetic of the downtown area.
The Sunset Drive Streetscape project is unique in that it initially was supposed to be a road reconstruction project to update utility infrastructure but quickly evolved into a broader planning process that seeks to improve both the function and aesthetics of Sunset Drive. An engineering firm is responsible for the road reconstruction component of the project, while DbD is guiding the effort to improve the visual appeal of the gateway itself. Due to the unique nature of the project, collaboration and communication have been essential to achieving the progress that has been realized to-date. DbD is embracing the opportunity to collaborate with town officials, community stakeholders, and an outside engineering firm in order to ensure that the community’s vision is properly reflected in the final streetscape plan. Multiple community input workshops have been conducted to ensure that the opinions of a diverse constituency get incorporated throughout the planning process. The findings from these input sessions will be supplemented with the findings of a widely-distributed community survey. Whether through our interactions with town officials, community members, or our partnering engineering firm, collaboration has been the defining feature of the Sunset Drive Streetscape project. A “top-down” approach to community planning rarely works. We are happy to be working with such willing community partners to make sure the heart of Blowing Rock’s downtown continues to be lively and fun.