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Transit center clears another speed bump

Objections to moving the center to the plaza are aired at City Council workshop
by: Jim Hart If the preferred concept for a Sandy Transit Center persists, Hoffman Avenue adjacent to Centennial Plaza would allow only northbound traffic –– both buses and cars.

Sandy residents seem to be on the verge of losing either southbound access to Hoffman Avenue or parking near Centennial Plaza.

Southbound access is most likely going to be lost.

During a Sandy City Council workshop and regular meeting Dec. 5, three options were presented from the consulting firm of Group Mackenzie, which has conceptualized a new transit center for Sandy Area Metro (SAM) at that site.

During the meeting, Sandy City Manager Scott Lazenby confirmed the potential loss in response to Councilor Phil Moyer's suggestion that, in addition to earlier concerns, 'there might be more things that have come up recently.'

'I don't think there are new issues,' Lazenby said. 'I was hopeful it would be possible to save some parking and keep traffic circulation the way it is. But the consultants say we'll lose one or the other; we'll either lose southbound access or parking.'

At the workshop, a Group Mackenzie consultant already had selected a favorite option, described as three lanes on Hoffman - all going in the northbound direction - one for buses, one for all vehicles and one for parallel parking (nine spaces).

Expressed at a public meeting Nov. 17 was the concern that, when a SAM transit center is established on Hoffman Avenue, residents living east of that street would no longer have easy access to public transportation.

But a survey of bus riders from that area showed most east-Sandy residents would not be significantly inconvenienced.

Councilors also have considered the loss of space for activities usually held in the plaza - activities that spill onto Hoffman.

According to the funding agreement, Hoffman Avenue would only be closed on two occasions - Music Fair and Feast and Christmas tree lighting.

When the transit center is built, councilors wondered, will some of those affected activities cease to happen; will they be reduced in scope; or will they find other suitable venues?

Community Services Director Nancy Enabnit acknowledged this proposal involves trade-offs.

'It's about what's going to be best for the community, for the growth and integrity of transit,' she said, 'as well as maintaining the integrity of the plaza. One of the things we're reluctant to do is compromise the integrity of a transit system that works so well.'

The city approved a Transit Master Plan in 2009 that identified the need to move the transit center to Centennial Plaza.

Transit Manager Julie Stephens told residents attending the Nov. 17 meeting it is common for cities to site transit centers near their central cores.

The current SAM 'transit center' is simply curbside in a residential area in eastern Sandy on McCormick Drive near Langensand Road, where buses park before beginning their routes and where drivers may use the restroom inside the Avamere at Sandy retirement home.

Speaking to the council as a representative of the Sandy Area Chamber of Commerce, Mitch Speck said local business owners are concerned about the loss of parking spaces and access to both boulevards.

'The perception is that we don't have enough parking (downtown),' he said. 'So having some parking (at the plaza) helps alleviate that (perception). Yes, we'd be losing spaces in that area, compared to what we have now, but at least we'd be retaining some.'

Stephens said nine parallel spaces would be retained of the current 15 head-in spaces.

Among advantages of the proposed transit center are the restrooms, shelter, access to businesses, transfer point to other lines (larger bus to Estacada and the mountain villages and the smaller bus around Sandy) and it shortens the route - making it easier to maintain half-hour Gresham service.

'Every effort is being made to design features that will enhance the use of the plaza,' Stephens said Monday, '(bathrooms, covered shelter, lighting) for events as well as transit riders and drivers.'

But the plan to establish a $250,000 transit center near the plaza is only temporary. Within about 10 years, the city expects to move the transit center to the east, depending on residential and commercial development and the extension of Dubarko Road to the east.

Earlier this year, Stephens received notice the city was awarded a $216,400 grant to partially fund the transit center. The city match of nearly $34,000 would come from contingency funds.

The grant, which can only be used at the Hoffman Avenue location, was awarded by the Oregon Transportation Commission from its Flexible Fund.

Councilors were not enthusiastic Dec. 5 in their straw-vote approval of moving forward with the project.

Councilor Carl Exner, for example, was afraid some events would be canceled because Hoffman Avenue couldn't be closed. Councilor Lois Coleman also was riding the fence.

'(If the project is approved) we're going to need more maintenance possibly,' Coleman said, 'and graffiti could be a problem. I agreed when we first did the Transit Master Plan; it sounded great, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty of what it looks like and what impact it's going to be, and I'm still not sure.'

After hearing some of the discussion, Councilor Dave Beitler began to change his mind a bit - more pros and fewer cons.

'I was kind of leaning (toward) no,' he said, 'but I'm leaning yes right now. It makes more sense than it doesn't make sense.'

Moyer compared the center's potential negative impact on the plaza with the positive features of the transit center and said, 'it makes sense to move ahead with (the project).'

Councilor Olga Gerberg also was in favor of the project because the positive features outweighed the negative.

Mayor Bill King agreed with Gerberg but added he was looking forward to moving the center to the east as soon as that area is developed.

Councilor Jeremy Pietzold admitted he also was 'teetering-tottering' with an uncertain opinion on the project, but gained more confidence after others expressed ideas.

Pietzold called the plaza Sandy's 'living room,' and wanted to be sure the transit center wasn't a detraction.

Enabnit told the council she would return later with 'a more refined concept plan.'

Stephens said Monday that refined concept, which will include revised parking lot access for the Prestige Business Center, is likely to be presented at the council's Jan. 3, 2012, meeting, with the possible addition of some time at the Jan. 17 meeting if deemed necessary.

The project's timeline has all the planning done prior to next year's Mountain Festival, and construction beginning after the festival. Completion is expected in mid-fall 2012.