Downtown visions for McKinleyville

things’ll be great when you’re Downtown McKinleyville residents reviewed a master plan for the McKinleyville Town Center, outlined in yellow. Image from County of Humboldt, Graphic by Union

Jack Durham
Mad River Union

McKINLEYVILLE – McKinleyville would have a walkable downtown with inviting pathways where people could stroll by restaurants, shops and artisan workshops. Above the businesses would be apartments and affordable senior housing. The attractive, charming village would have car-free zones, parks, playgrounds, green spaces, and an area for farmers markets and outdoor performances.

These are just some of the ideas suggested for the McKinleyville Town Center by participants at a workshop held Nov. 13 at Azalea Hall and hosted by the McKinleyville Municipal Advisory Committee and the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department. About 70 people attended the meeting, a kick-off for what’s estimated to be a six-month process for creating a McKinleyville Town Center ordinance.

‘Build upon that legacy’

Community Development Director John Ford encouraged participants to think big, share their ideas and brainstorm about how they envision the future of the Town Center.

The Town Center includes 141 acres smack dab in the middle of town. It extends from Pierson Park to McKinleyville Avenue and from Railroad Drive to south of Hiller Road, and includes the commercial area containing Burger King and Starbucks.

“There are about 65 assessor parcels, about 60 landowners and 47 of the properties are improved,” said Senior Planner John Miller in his presentation explaining the current status of the Town Center.

Although much of the land is undeveloped, the Town Center includes existing buildings, many of which fit in with the Town Center vision outlined in McKinleyville’s growth blue

print, the McKinleville Community Plan. Approved in 2002, that plan calls for parks, civic buildings and walkable commercial areas in the Town Center. The area is home to the McKinleyville Shopping Center, Arcata Fire District’s McKinleyville Station, Pierson Park, McKinleyville Library, McKinleyville Sheriff’s Office. McKinleyville Teen Center, Azalea Hall and the McKinleyville Activity Center.

“There has been a lot of progress made in implementing the Town Center, including the building we’re in right now and the park that surrounds us, the library, and the Sheriff’s substation,” Ford said. “The generation that has been working on this a long time has done a tremendous job getting to this point... and so what we want to do is build upon that legacy.”

FORGET ALL YOUR TROUBLES Planning Director John Ford and McKMAC member Mary Burke conduct scoping. Jack Durham | Union

The meeting participants – fueled with free pepperoni and veggie pizza, chocolate chip cookies and San Pellegrino Limonata sodas – brainstormed ideas for what they would like to see in the Town Center. 

“There isn’t enough housing for seniors,” a person said.

Dennis Mayo agreed, and suggested three-,four- or five-story buildings for senior housing. A few groans could be heard in the crowd, prompting Mayo to explain that preserving open space and building affordable housing involves trade-offs.

Other suggestions included  creating cooperative work spaces for artists, a Wiyot cultural center, a children’s museum, edible gardens, public toilets, a place for pop-up businesses, a tool library, a community kitchen and a market similar to Pike Place Market in Seattle.

People said they wanted the Town Center to be eco-friendly, with sustainable buildings, protected and enhanced wetlands, and interconnected pathways for pedestrians, bicyclists and equestrians.

“It has to be attractive,” said one participant.

At one point, Ford directed the crowd to talk in small groups about what they wanted to see in the Town Center. They were then asked to report back on what they talked about.

“The thing that came up for me and the group I was talking with was walkability. Like, if there’s one thing we want to see for the Town Center is the ability to walk and want to walk all around,” a person said.

People also said they wanted to be able to safely stroll through the Town Center at night.

Building depends on developers

After hearing some of the ideas, a person asked “How is this going to be funded?”

The process of creating an ordinance that would dictate building standards for the McKinleyville Town Center is being paid for by the Humboldt County Planning and Building Department, which has jurisdiction over planning in the unincorporated community.

As for the actual projects – such as housing and commercial buildings – those would be paid for by private interests, assuming any of the ideas are deemed financially viable by the developers.

“It has to be economically viable, or none of that stuff works,” said Greg Pierson, whose family owns the McKinleyville Shopping Center, most of the undeveloped land behind the shopping center, and land south of Hiller Road.

The Town Center ordinance could set standards for the appearance of buildings. It could require certain types of streetscapes and pathways. It could dictate requirements for open space, signage and lighting.

Corporate stores?

The McKinleyville Community Plan has a policy that states that the Town Center “shall have no additional drive-thru restaurants, and no large ‘big-box’ department stores... Rather, the department stores should be divided into several separate rooms or buildings to avoid the look of the giant, retail department store.”

There was some discussion about what businesses could be allowed or banned from the Town Center.

One person asked what could be done to keep big corporations from opening stores in the Town Center. Another thought that may have been on some residents’ minds is the controversial Dollar General store that was built this year at Murray Road and McKinleyville Avenue. Could a Dollar General be banned from the Town Center? Or a Wal-Mart?

The simple answer: no.

“You can’t really discriminate against businesses,” Ford said.

The community can set building standards, It can place limits on square footage. It can ban drive throughs. It can create zoning for specific uses. But it can’t single out a particular business and discriminate against it.

Limits on square footage along with rules about signage and building aesthetics may discourage certain businesses from locating in the Town Center, but if a Wal-Mart or Dollar General are willing to follow those rules, the can’t be legally prevented from opening in a commercial zone.

“How do we prevent a Starbucks on every corner?” a person asked.

“Don’t spend your money there,” a person answered.

The group ultimately identified some overall topics to further explore. They include transportation, open space, affordable housing, sustainability, art, homelessness and infrastructure.

The next meeting will take place Wednesday, Dec. 11 at a time and location to be announced.




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