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Archives for February 17, 2016

Mobile council approves Water Street transformation, spars over minority contracts

Mobile took a big step Tuesday toward a new vision for Water Street downtown, one that includes more lanes for cyclists and pedestrians, fewer for cars, and other changes intended to make the area more inviting to visitors and residents alike.

At its regular Tuesday meeting, the Mobile City Council approved a proposal sponsored by Mayor Sandy Stimpson. The measure gives $283,459.15 in city funds to Thompson Engineering Inc. to draft the specific plan that the city will implement.

Stimpson, who is traveling overseas, released a statement on Monday reiterating his desire to improve access to downtown features such as Cooper Riverside Park, the Mobile Convention Center, GulfQuest Maritime Museum and the Mobile Cruise Terminal.

“Water Street is often people’s first impression of the city of Mobile,” Stimpson said in the statement. “Ironically, Water Street currently prevents you from accessing the water. Our goal is to create a safer, more walkable and bikeable corridor that invites you to these attractions. “

Such changes have been part of Stimpson’s agenda going back at least to March 2014, when he attended the Mayors’ Institute on City Design, a gathering of mayors and urban planning experts.

After that event, Stimpson said it was his goal was to address “the lack of connectivity” between major assets on and near the downtown waterfront. He called for study to explore the way that features such as bicycle lanes, improved pedestrian crossings and better signage could make the Water Street corridor more hospitable.

Two years later, the resulting proposal includes “striping, traffic signalization, landscaping and other gateway elements” extending “from Beauregard Street to 1,500′ south of Government Street.” According to information provided by the mayor’s office, the addition of bicycle and pedestrian lanes will cost two vehicular lanes, a reduction from six to four, but this will be offset by “new traffic signals along portions of Water Street to create a more efficient traffic flow.”

An artist’s rendering for a reworked Water Street corridor shows a view of the proposed changes at the Government Street intersection. Currently, visitors walking to the Arthur R. Outlaw Mobile Convention Center (not shown, to left of frame) face a daunting passage across six lanes of traffic. (Courtesy of Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s office) 

The general concept was developed by planning and design company MIG. Thompson Engineering now has until fall to develop a specific plan to implement MIG’s ideas. At that point, a representative of the mayor’s office said, the city will begin to make the changes, such as redefining traffic lanes and installing new, better synchronized traffic lights. The transformation should be under way by year’s end, though the timetable for completion is uncertain.

The council passed the measure with no opposition. Indeed, much of its work on Tuesday proceeded quietly and smoothly, including approval of various road, sidewalk and maintenance projects. The biggest of these was a measure to re-allocate $2.9 million in reserve funds to drainage projects, so that the work could begin this year rather than in 2017 as originally planned. The measure calls for the funds to be repaid to the city’s capital improvement reserves in 2017. Council President Gina Gregory celebrated the move, saying that heavy rains in 2015 had shown “it’s better to do the work sooner rather than later.”

The harmony was interrupted near the end of the meeting, however, by a flare-up over minority representation in contracts for upcoming city sidewalk work. The actual votes on the contracts had been held over until next week; the question was whether the contractors had done enough to show they were meeting a standard set by the 1985 Zoghby Act, which established Mobile’s contemporary mayor-council government structure.

The acts calls for the city to make a reasonable effort to maintain a 15 percent participation rate on city projects by economically disadvantaged businesses, interpreted to include businesses owned by minorities or women. The city’s diligence in meeting the standard, or even in maintaining the data to show whether it’s being met or not, has regularly been a bone of contention over the years.

On Tuesday, Levon Manzie, the council member representing District 2, expressed concern that two contractors – Harwell Co. and Asphalt Services, Inc. – had not convincingly shown that they planned to meet the 15 percent requirement. Manzie was backed by his District 1 counterpart, Fred Richardson, in insisting on a firm commitment to putting 15 percent of the value of the contract in the hands of a qualifying business. Richardson repeatedly called for others to “do the math,” saying that 15 percent of a million-dollar contract was a number anybody could figure out.

Other council members did not seem to share the view that the law essentially requires a majority-owned business to hire a minority-owned subcontractor for a portion of the work, the approach strongly favored by Richardson and Manzie. District 4’s John Williams also argued that the law calls for a reasonable effort to meet the 15 percent standard, not an absolute adherence to it.

The matter ended with some uncertainty, if not a standoff. The contractors have until next week’s meeting to address Manzie’s objections; he assured them that if they did not, they would not have his vote, a position Richardson seemed to share. Meanwhile, District 3 Councilman C.J. Small called for council attorney Jim Rossler to send out a clear account of the law for all council members to consider.

When the dust settled, the council was left feeling the need to explain itself to two visiting groups of schoolchildren – student council representatives from Wilmer Elementary and Leinkauf Elementary – who’d sat through the fracas.

For once, Williams and Richardson shared a message: That as fractious as the discussion had been, members respected each other and it was all part of a process that would lead, in however roundabout a way, to an orderly resolution.

“We’ve had some great discussion … I think it was a necessary discussion,” Williams said.

“This is one of the best councils in the nation,” Richardson assured the visitors. “We know exactly what we’re doing.”

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Taking cue from Providence, Lowell might light up canals

LOWELL — From Lowell’s founding nearly two centuries ago, the city’s lifeblood was the water that coursed through its canals and powered its many textile mills, which by the 1850s formed the country’s largest industrial complex. Now, city officials are again turning to the waterways in hopes of further fueling Lowell’s revival in the post-industrial era.

Starting Friday evening as part of a weekend-long Winterfest, a stretch of one canal will be bathed in shifting colors, and the area flanking the canal, Lucy Larcom Park, will feature fire artists, music, and food. It’s a first phase in what project boosters hope could lead to the illumination —and enlivening — of much of city’s the 5.6-mile network of canals. Some have even suggested the time has come to dust off plans for gondolas or water taxis, a fitting development, perhaps, for a city that was once known as the Venice of America.


“The canals have a historic nature because they powered the mills in Lowell’s glory days,” said City Councilor William Samaras, a lifelong Lowellian who has led the lighting effort. “But the canals can create another glory day for Lowell, by becoming something people will want to come and see.”

Lowell joins a growing number of cities that have turned to illuminating waterways as a way to spur economic development. Two of the most prominent examples are WaterFire in Providence, in which sections of the downtown river are illuminated with floating fire sculptures, and the River Walk in San Antonio. In Europe, annual light festivals are held in Lyon, France, and Amsterdam in which age-old buildings and bridges are transformed into canvases for shimmering light displays.

Barnaby Evans for The Boston Globe/file

Fires from a previous WaterFire installation in the Rhode Island School of Design section of Water Place Park in downtown Providence.

Part of the reason city planners have turned to the concept is the growing affordability and capability of LED lights, which are energy-efficient and can be controlled by computer.

“Lighting canals and waterways is an increasingly attractive option for cities, especially older ones like Lowell, because people forget the bridges and waterways because they tend to go dark at night and disappear,” said Todd Lee, a designer and architect who heads the advocacy group Light Boston, which promotes light-related art on infrastructure in the Boston area.

To be sure, Lowell’s first step is a modest one. The lights at Lucy Larcom Park, which are already lit, will stay on throughout the year, as will those lighting the canal. It will cost the city about $150,000.


Lowell’s renewed focus on the canal system comes nearly 40 years after the federal government designated the whole downtown as a National Historical Park. The creation of the park in 1978 was intended not only to preserve Lowell’s unique history — as the country’s first master-planned factory town — but also to spur its economic redevelopment, an unprecedented mandate at the time.

The effect of the park on the character of the city has been profound, from downtown’s cobblestone streets and iron lampposts to the millions of square feet of once-vacant mill space that have been rehabbed, thanks to federal tax credits and other incentives.

The canal system was central to the city’s national park bid, said Paul Marion, one of the leaders of the Lowell Heritage Partnership, a civic group.

“It’s really a signature physical feature of the city. Lowell is a waterfront city with the Merrimack and Concord rivers, but running through the city is this latticework of canals that really makes Lowell a special place,” Marion said. “In a way, this is getting back to the root of the national park.”

Marion’s organization has launched what it’s calling “The Next Initiative,” a planning process that will seek input from residents, including a growing community of artists, on ways to enhance the canals. Some early ideas include light sculptures, climbing walls, and placing a floating swimming pool and deck in a canal or river — similar to a concept in Vienna.

For all of the grand ideas being bandied about, development near the canals presents jurisdictional and regulatory challenges. Chief among them is the fact that the canal system remains an active source of hydroelectric power.

Enel Green Power North America, part of a multinational renewable energy corporation, owns and operates a 20-megawatt plant near a dam on the Merrimack River, at the headwaters of the canal system. As such, Enel has rights over all of the city’s canals.

‘Running through the city is this latticework of canals that really makes Lowell a special place. In a way, this is getting back to the root of the national park.’

Paul Marion, Lowell Heritage Partnership 

While city officials have in the past lamented Enel’s lack of participation in revitalization efforts, an Enel representative was on hand at a recent canal planning meeting, though the company has not contributed financially to the project.

“As a local business and the owner of the canal waterways we are listening, engaged, and at the table to be a part of this important conversation,” an Enel spokeswoman said in a written statement.

One might also expect some friction between canal boosters and the National Park Service, which imposes strict design standards throughout the historic park. But park Superintendent Celeste Bernardo expressed enthusiasm for the lighting project, noting that $51 million in federal, state, and city funds had already been invested in canal improvements, such as paths, landscaping, and historical markers.

The planning for lighting and otherwise enhancing the canals is being led by Daniel Koff, a designer whose firm created an award-winning interactive history tour of downtown Lawrence.

“We’re not going to turn Lowell into Vegas,” Koff said. “Hopefully, some lighting installations can become a framework and foundation for other artists to create interpretive works based on Lowell’s history and its current population.”

Ted Siefer can be reached at

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City officials polling West Newport residents on improvements

Newport Beach city officials are asking West Newport residents to weigh in on a neighborhood master plan that emphasizes landscaping, wider sidewalks, additional lighting and signage and other improvements for what amounts to a long-term wish list.

In January, the city began developing the West Newport Mesa Streetscape Master Plan. The plan is intended to “unify the diverse elements” through sidewalk, parkway and landscape improvements that encourage pedestrian and bicycle use, according to a city staff report.

Residents can share their ideas for the area bordered by West 16th Street, Newport Boulevard, Hospital Road and Monrovia Avenue at a public workshop Wednesday and again at Thursday’s Planning Commission meeting.

A similar effort to refresh the Balboa Peninsula with new landscaping, road improvements and better signage has been under way for the last several years.

West Newport’s issues became more evident when the City Council created a Height Overlay Zone for residential development in January 2015. The zone increases allowable heights to 40 feet for flat roofs and 45 feet for sloped roofs in exchange for increased setbacks.

City officials said a master plan would help direct private improvements and identify potential areas in which to invest city resources.

Councilman Tony Petros said the idea for the plan was brought to the forefront during the time when city officials were considering an 81-unit condominium development planned for the former site of the Ebb Tide Mobile Home park on Placentia Avenue. The development originally did not have a lot of public amenities, but featured rooftop decks for each condominium, Petros said.

The developer worked with the city to incorporate certain enhanced design elements, including a larger setback in exchange for the less-restrictive height limit.

“That spurred my whole thought of not wanting to see the densities that are happening in neighboring communities and wanting to have a real discussion in the community about open space and the livability of the neighborhood,” Petros said.

The Planning Commission approved that project last August.

Decades ago, West Newport was known mostly for its industrial uses and boatyards, but over the years residential units began replacing businesses in the area. Petros expects that will continue to be the case, given the area’s prime, coastal location.

Petros said some West Newport residents have expressed concerns about the city allowing the density permitted in other cities.

“We want to work with the development community so they clearly understand what we want and allow them the opportunity to provide it,” he said.

The public workshop is at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at Pacifica High School, 881 West 15th Street. The Planning Commission meeting is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at 100 Civic Center Drive.

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Shrinking Cities- a Refuge for Bees: 5 Questions for Dr. Rebecca Tonietto

Most people are aware of colony collapse among bee populations in recent years, and that a group of agricultural pesticides, neonicotinoids are to blame. Though these poisons are now in the process of being banned by the EPA, pollinators are struggling. One unique approach to helping them recover is creating urban refugees, especially in cities with declining populations, where surprisingly, wild bees can find a home. I spoke with Dr. Rebecca Tonietto, a David H. Smith postdoctoral research fellow through the Society for Conservation Biology at Saint Louis University who studies bees:

Question 1: The news has mostly covered the decline of commercial honeybees – how have populations of wild pollinators been affected in recent years?

Answer: Research suggests some wild pollinators, such as bumble bees, are declining as well. For most species we just don’t know since there are limited historic data available. For example, if you were to survey bees in your garden and found 30 bees representing 10 species, would that be good or bad? We need collection records from the same place over time to track changes in bee abundance, diversity and community composition.

This is especially complex because bees are very, very diverse. There are over 20,000 species of bees, which is more than all species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians combined! They range from big and fuzzy to tiny and shiny. Some of the most common species are metallic green and blue. Though most are about the size of your pinky nail, some are the size of your thumb, and others could nearly fly through a window screen. Overall, though the status of each and every species is not well-understood, we do know some are in decline, and we can’t go wrong by trying to support and protect our native pollinators as best as we can.

Examples of native North American bees (photo credit: R. Tonietto)

Question 2: Why is maintaining healthy populations of wild pollinators such as bees important?

Answer: Wild bees deserve conservation attention in their own right, but from our perspective, it is especially important because they can provide pollination insurance in the face of honeybee declines. Bees pollinate many of our favorite foods like apples, oranges, almonds, cherries and berries, pumpkins and squash, and so many more. In fact, you can thank a pollinator for every third bite of food you eat!

To maintain diverse and abundant bee communities we need to support their habitat needs, a place to live and food to eat. In your garden, providing bee habitat really means less work for you! For food, choose plants that will bloom at different times so there is nectar and pollen available for bees from spring to fall. Native wildflowers won’t require much attention or watering and a variety of species tend to have naturally staggered bloom times.

The majority of our wild bees are solitary and do not live in hives, instead females excavate small tunnel nests into soil and wood. To provide nesting habitat, don’t put mulch everywhere and leave some fallen limbs or cut logs out in the yard. Check out recommendations made at for ways to create pollinator habitat in your own yard. Even if you aren’t growing fruits and veggies over 90% of flowering plants need a pollinator!

Dr. Rebecca Tonietto searching for bees in the prairie at the Chicago Botanic Garden (photo credit: Robin Carlson).

Question 3: Why target shrinking cities as refuge areas for pollinators?

Answer: It may be surprising, but studies from cities around the world report high levels of bee diversity and abundance, even including some rare specialized bees. Naturally patchy habitat is the norm in meadows and prairies and the urban mosaic isn’t necessarily all that different. Imagine walking down a residential urban block in the summertime. There are clusters of brightly colored flowers blooming here and there, in window boxes and pots on stoops, in the landscaping between the road and sidewalk, the dandelions and clover dotting the park lawn. All of that may just look pretty to us, but it’s a buffet for bees.

Nooks and crannies in buildings and other structures can be great nesting habitat for some species, as are patches of bare ground for others. Beyond food and nesting sites, cities offer escape from many agricultural pesticides, and even reduced herbivory pressure on rare host plants some specialist bees can’t live without. In shrinking cities new green spaces are created as the city depopulates. For these reasons, shrinking cities in particular can offer relief from the two main factors negatively impacting pollinators: exposure to pesticides and habitat loss.

Native wildflowers in bloom support wild pollinators at The Lurie Garden in Chicago’s Millennium Park (photo credit: Robin Carlson)

Question 4: What benefits do wild bees bring to city dwellers than could make people want to attract the insects?

Answer: First, wild bees are pollinators and the majority of flowering plants require a pollinator. Many urban farmers and gardeners do not keep honeybees, and rely on wild bees for pollination services to grow fresh, local fruits and vegetables.

Second, bee habitat is beautiful! What would you prefer to see, concrete or dense patches of blooming wildflowers? Establishing bee habitat by creating pollinator gardens or simply planting more flowering plants in general makes urban areas more aesthetically pleasing.

Third, there is a measurable psychological benefit we gain from urban biodiversity. Just the bees being there, let alone helping to pollinate many of the flowering plants we enjoy to look at and eat, is a benefit it and of itself.

Question 5: What kinds of success have you seen so far from these programs?

Answer: Pollinator-friendly gardens attract pollinators. For example, I surveyed bees on green roofs and in city parks in Chicago. I collected a new bee species to Illinois (a new state record!) from the middle of Millennium Park in the Lurie Garden, which is full of beautiful native prairie plants. Big waving sunflowers, bursts of purple bee balm, tall coneflowers ranging from yellow to white to pink and many, many more.

If a small garden smack in the middle of Chicago can support such a rare species indicative of high-quality habitat, imagine the conservation potential if everyone had at least one patch of wildflowers blooming in their yard. By considering bees needs in our gardens, yards and cities we can combat habitat lost to agricultural expansion, and provide bees with the food and housing they need to thrive. If we build it, they will come!

Dr. Rebecca Tonietto is a community ecologist studying wild bee communities in shrinking cities. She is currently a David H. Smith Postdoctoral Fellow in Conservation Biology academically based at Saint Louis University. She explores ways that native bee conservation, sustainable urban agriculture and policy can work together for common goals.

Tim Ward is co-owner of Intermedia Communications Training, Inc, a Washington D.C. based firm that specializes in communications for development, economics, science and the environment, and the co-author of The Master Communicator’s Handbook.

The Master Communicator's Handbook

Indestructible You: Building a Self that Can't be Broken



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Plans coming into focus for Vero’s Cultural Arts Village

VERO BEACH — The Cultural Arts Village proposed for downtown could have pedestrian and bicycle areas, outdoor performance areas, more murals and community gardens. A new Edgewood Neighborhood Association might be created, strengthening identity of the area. Historic street names might be restored.

They’re all suggestions from residents, and part of the latest report on the ambitious project, now envisioned as an area bordered by state Road 60 on the north, 14th Avenue on the east, 18th Street on the south and 20th Avenue on the west.

The final report is to go to the City Council March 15.

Creating the Arts Village is seen as a way to revitalize the Downtown Arts District by preserving existing structures and improving or updating others to create an environment that will appeal to residents, artists and visitors alike, according to organizers.

Backers, though, haven’t developed a cost estimate for the project. That will depend on details in the final report and the scope of the project ultimately approved by the City Council, according to Barbara Hoffman, executive director of the Cultural Council of Indian River County.

Once a final plan is approved, fundraising will begin and grant applications will be prepared and submitted.

This updated report comprises feedback from public-input sessions in September and from interviews with numerous project stakeholders. It was overseen and directed by the Cultural Arts Village leadership team and by Vero Beach city staff members.

The public can learn more about the current proposal and ask questions at a meeting Wednesday evening.

Much time has been spent addressing the differences between the Arts District and the Arts Village, Hoffman said.

“The difference is that the Arts District is much more commercial, and already zoned for commercial space, whereas the Village will be more residential, but will also include some studios, shops and businesses,” Hoffman said.

“We’re very supportive of the District,” she said, “and are going to promote it too. But right now, we have to focus on the Village and its completion.”

Other components of the Arts Village master plan are reviews of parking and landscaping throughout the area, new rules to allow mixed-use buildings and additional options for development of the old city diesel plant.

If you go

WHAT: Presentation of the latest report on the Cultural Arts Village proposed for downtown Vero Beach.

WHEN: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday

WHERE: The Heritage Center, 2140 14th Ave., Vero Beach

DETAILS: The report will be presented by the Treasure Coast Regional Planning Council.

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Home remodel and garden show to bring spring vibe to February

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Your garden in February: Sean Murray’s latest tips for North East gardeners

How you use colour in your garden can change the energy and mood of the space and needs careful consideration as it will set the tone for months or even years to come.

As a designer part of my role is to encourage clients to be bold in their choices and the overall feel of what we are aiming to achieve. At times nothing can be more challenging than deciding on the use of colour in both hard landscaping materials, but more importantly in the planting scheme, in order to create the right mood.

A colour palate of hot pinks, vibrant purples and electric blues can instantly create a feeling of uplifting energy. In contrast, predominately white and green planting can create a sense of calm reflection and tranquillity.

If I’m honest I have long been captured by the timeless allure of the white garden. There is something dream like about an all-white colour scheme especially on a warm moonlit summer’s eve.

The white garden famously created by Vita Sackville West at Sissinghurst in the 1930s is a sign of its enduring appeal. I have just designed a Lunar garden for a two-acre listed walled garden in Northumberland.

Designed around the eight phases of the moon, the planting scheme will be predominately white. A Lunar garden as the name suggests really comes into its own at night where the white flowers glow ethereally, a magical glow made even more theatrical in moonlight.

The planting includes a Prunus Tai Haku orchard, great drifts of Artemisia Powis Castle, Digitalis Purpurea Alba, Verbascum Chaixii, Achellia Moonshine, Paeonie Shirley Temple and Enichacea Purpurea White Swan.

Sean Murray's design for a lunar garden
Sean Murray’s design for a lunar garden

A lilac walk planted with Syringa Vulgaris Madame Lemoine, a small tree up to 7m, with double, scented flowers will provide a perfumed avenue in which to waltz by moonlight.

On a smaller scale you may not want to go for the whole white garden look, perhaps try a corner or an area around a seat where you would like to feel calm or even an all-white planter.

If you do have room, Crambe Cordifolia, the great sea kale, will make you stop in your tracks. An interesting robust perennial growing to 2m with masses of tiny white cloud-like flowers, think gypsophelia on amphetamines.

Look closely and you note even the apparently purest white planting schemes have touches of lime, lemon, umber, blue or burgundy planting, which is the clever bit as it creates a subtle layer of interest and makes the human eye work just that bit harder.

Try adding touches of lemon Phygelius Aequalis Yellow Trumpet, Sisyrinchium Striatum, Crimson Knautica Macedonia or metallic blue Eryngium Giganteum.

Don’t forget to ramp up the summer scent by adding Jasmine officinale, annual Nicotiana Lime Green and pots of Lillium Regale.

You may want to wait until the next full moon to plant your seeds as its well know that this can increase your chances of success with germination, but as for your Lunar garden, start planning right now for your very own mid-summer night’s dream.

Sean Murray runs a garden design company based in Ashington, Northumberland, www.

Sean Murray gathers ideas for his garden design
Sean Murray gathers ideas for his garden design

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