MICHIGAN CITY – Three years after Roger Brooks International suggested Michigan City build a central plaza in the downtown district, the community is getting its first glance at what it's expected to look like.

The task force of Michigan City residents and outside consultants charged with making final decisions on what the new plaza will entail presented the proposed schematic design and potential programming to Michigan City NOW over breakfast at the Blue Chip Stardust Event Center on Monday.

“When you have a plaza, you have the living room of your downtown; it’s where people gather,” said Dan Senftner of Destination Rapid City. “… You want a vibrant city; you want things happening in your downtown; you want things going on. … I can tell you, this works.”

He talked of how the plaza in Rapid City, South Dakota – population 67,000 –, attracts 500,000-600,000 visitors per year. And he estimated with the right programming, Michigan City’s could draw more, because it's in a more heavily populated region.

“Remember: your draw territory, your area has much more draw than Rapid City does,” Senftner said. “You’ve got communities all around with a lot of population. They will come here once you have something for them to come to.”

Michigan City’s central plaza will be located in the block of 7th Street between Franklin and Washington streets.

City Planning Director Craig Phillips said the plaza will span from the empty lot southwest of the intersection of Franklin and 7th to the vacant lot northwest of it, eliminating through-traffic on 7th Street in that block.

“It’s our intention to close one block of 7th Street,” he said. “One of the major reasons for that is, I think we’ve all heard of events that have happened around the world where, unfortunately, people have been either attacked or become the victim in a terrorist situation. And we don’t want to take the risk of somebody using a car as a weapon or something similar to that. So safety, and the way in which people access the plaza, has been taken into the utmost consideration.”

Before introducing renderings of the $7 million project, Phillips pulled up a slide of three images the task force used to guide them as they decided on design elements. One was of beach glass, pebbles and other small items one could find at the beach. Another showed Michigan City’s old Pullman Factory, speaking to the city’s industrial history. The third was a windblown sand dune and the Lake Michigan shore.

As he clicked through the slides of renderings to show the plaza from various perspectives, Phillips talked the group through what they can expect.

The list included an interactive, sensory art piece with light and sound by renowned artist Jen Lewin; a water feature sometimes referred to as a fountain or splash pad; a temporary rink for ice skating, roller skating and ice bumper cars; repositionable platform benches; a children’s play area; and synthetic turf areas.

An outdoor café on the northern end will offer outdoor seating surrounded by flowers and trees.

And a new multi-use building will be built along the south side of the courtyard. Outside the facility, but under the same roof, will be an elevated, outdoor stage. Inside will be a kitchen, concession area, storage space, mechanical room, restrooms and multi-use community rooms.

According to Phillips, various portions of the plaza will be programmed at least 250 days per year, and some activities will generate revenue. 

Joel Baldin of the Hitchcock Design Group told the Michigan City Redevelopment Commission at its June 10 meeting: “The intent is that the locals are coming down on a regular basis. Every 10 to 14 days, something different is coming in. We've been brainstorming tons of ideas ...

“Having food trucks in the space, having dancing, having games and yoga, afterschool programs, culinary programs ... Obviously, there will be seasonal concerts and concerts throughout the summer.

"But the group is just starting to brainstorm and accumulate these lists. Some ideas will be more successful than others, but the idea is that it will be constantly changing and people are coming down to see what's happening."

Abby May, president of the Michigan City Mainstreet Association, said that although the plaza will usually be programmed during business and evening hours only, it will never be completely closed.

And Baldin confirmed that security cameras will run around the clock, and a physical security presence will be scheduled or called in as needed.

As the project moves forward, the next steps are for the task force to finalize the schematic design and present it to the Common Council on July 16.

The Redevelopment Commission voted unanimously on June 10 to secure bonding in the amount of $8.8 million, and will hold a public hearing on that decision July 8. But it will be the Common Council that ultimately will decide via resolution whether to allow the commission to seek the funding.

As of now, construction is expected to begin this fall, with completion sometime in the fall of 2020.

'Where will we park?'

At both the Michigan City NOW breakfast Monday and the Michigan City Redevelopment Commission meeting June 10, the first question asked after the presentation on the civic plaza was where patrons will park.

"In 2014, we did an inventory of every single parking space in the downtown area," City Planning Director Craig Phillips said. "So, everywhere between Detroit and Green streets on the south, all the way up to Trail Creek, and from east to west from Pine Street to Wabash. So, we understand whether every parking space is public or private, whether it's an opportunity for potential sharing after hours. We've also identified some spaces for potential parking structures on the north-central and south sides of downtown. 

But ... the study also takes into account that the first phase of the double track project will include a 500-parking space structure that will be ... less than 2.5 blocks from the plaza."

City Controller Rich Murphy said it's important to have people walking past restaurants, shops and galleries in the Uptown Arts District as they make their way to the plaza.

“We wanted foot traffic downtown," he said. "We made a promise to the business community and to the residents that Michigan City is open for business. And we got investors to come downtown. Now, we need to drive foot traffic, we need to keep these businesses open, and we need to keep our promise that Michigan City is open for business.”

Dan Senftner of Destination Rapid City said he sees a lack of parking as a positive.

“There’s nothing better … than having nowhere to park,” he said. “That means there’s people here. That’s what we’re looking for.”

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