Rayme Epperson wants to see some changes downtown and has gathered 106 signatures to back her up.
Epperson, who works at the downtown business Salon Five14, said she has witnessed a significant portion of her mobility-impaired clientele hindered by a lack of accessibility. Though she tried to reserve parking in front of her Main Street business for these clientele, she was told by the City of Cottage Grove it was not allowed.
So, with dozens of names on an informal petition in hand, Epperson proposed to the city that ADA (Americans with Disability Act) parking be constructed downtown, though she has also said she would settle for anything that improved accessibility for those who are mobility-challenged.
“It would be nice to have some kind of concrete ramp or semi-circle to eliminate that giant step up on the curb — not a blockade like in front of the eateries that are supposed to be removed for winter,” she said, referring to the “streeteries” installed in downtown parking spaces this year.
However, Epperson said the city’s response to her parking space request has been an uncompromising rejection.
Several city staff have told The Sentinel, too, that meeting ADA standards for a parking space in particular would be difficult or impossible on Main Street simply because of space requirements.
“Physically, there’s just no way we could take that one spot and build a space,” said Public Works and Development Director Faye Stewart, referring to ADA parking. “Just the physical constraints that we have to deal with and the rules around ADA parking spaces. I’ve been told it’s impossible to build something there site-specific under the conditions we have today.”
One reason for the physical constraints is the slope of Main Street itself, which has a noticeably high crown at its center. Curbs downtown are notoriously high as well, which is both a hindrance for the mobility-impaired and engineers seeking solutions.
“But in a rebuild job, it might be something that could be considered,” Stewart added.
Several locals have testified to the need for that consideration to take place.
Resident Fonda Norris said she is “moderately handicapped,” and uses a walker or wheelchair for safety purposes when she is out and about.
“I very rarely go to downtown Cottage Grove because of accessibility,” she said. “[There is] not nearly enough handicapped parking and if there is a spot available, it is usually too far from where I need to go, so then I need to use the handicapped corners or try to get up on a curb.”
She also said the corners themselves are hard to use because they are not aligned properly with the sidewalks.
“If I am in a wheelchair without someone to push or pull, they are almost impossible to use,” she said. “The curbs are way too high for me to use because I am not strong enough to step up on them. … It would be a great help to those of us in Cottage Grove that need some assistance getting around to have a designated parking spot on each block to be able to shop in our local establishments.”
Ed Lovato, dispatcher at South Lane Wheels, said he has heard similar concerns from the nonprofit’s drivers.
“Many of our riders are in need of transportation, with quite a few of them needing to use the paratransit lift in our buses,” he said. “The downtown area, mainly Main Street, is a stressful area for the drivers to lower their lifts. They have to put on their flashers and basically stop traffic while they unload and load passengers, taking time to secure them safely before departure. This takes a few minutes.”
Also, if parking spaces are full, people with walkers or wheelchairs cannot get through the parked cars to the sidewalk from the stopped bus, Lovato added.
“A designated drop-off area downtown, not blocked by cars, would be a great idea,” he said.
Stewart, too, acknowledged the need for upgrades and that, while built to ADA standards at the time of construction, some streets and ramps have since fallen out of compliance as ADA rules have changed over time.
“I have actually physically watched individuals in a wheelchair — the ramps are excessively steep and they’re really hard at times without assistance for people to get up,” said Stewart.
Legally, the city does not have to upgrade ADA components of streets which are not compliant unless a certain level of reconstruction is done on that street. Many of the streets in Cottage Grove are known to have fallen out of compliance, but city officials have said that securing the funding to upgrade them all is the primary hurdle.
Roots of trees along Main Street have also created bulges on downtown walkways, which can be obstacles for certain people with mobility issues.
Currently, the city’s best bet at addressing these problems may be the Main Street Refinement Plan, which was adopted by the Cottage Grove City Council in 2015.
The project has a stated aim to create a “more dynamic Main Street Historic District to boost local businesses, promote community engagement, and create a safe and beautiful experience for everyone in Cottage Grove.”
The refinement plan’s area of interest extends well beyond Main Street, as far as Gibbs Avenue to the north and Adams Avenue to the south.
Among its many proposals, it seeks to make rights-of-way more accessible to all users regardless of ability. The document also points to the need to bring pedestrian routes and sidewalks up to modern ADA standards as they are “in poor condition in many areas.”
Though already adopted, the plan is still sitting on the shelf and needs funding to get the gears turning on any construction. At the time of adoption, the total plan cost estimates were about $10 million; it is likely to have increased in the ensuing years.
Getting those dollars is the main challenge.
The city gets about $1.2 million in local and state gas tax revenue each year, about 50 percent of which Stewart estimates is spent on normal maintenance, contractual obligations with ODOT, filling potholes, painting curbs and some street sweeping.
“So when we get it all done, we might have somewhere in the neighborhood of $500,000 a year that we invest in projects,” he said.
That half a million falls significantly short of the Main Street Refinement Plan’s costs. Instead, the city has used that money for other projects in the last several years such as rebuilding bridges and other street work.
Because the City of Cottage Grove cannot fund the refinement project by itself, officials have turned to other funding sources. Currently, the city is researching available grant opportunities and is working with the Lane Council of Governments on applications for a Main Street-specific grant through the Economic Development Administration.
The grant maxes out at $5 million, so the city would need to find a way to slim down its Main Street Refinement Plan to be approved. One option in this direction would be to cut the side street portions of the plan and focus specifically on Main Street.
“We’re cautiously optimistic that we can come under the financial constraints,” said Stewart. The application is scheduled to be ready in January.
Another option is America Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars. Last month, the City of Cottage Grove received its first distribution of $1,161,562.89 from these relief funds. A second and equal payment will be received next year.
The funds are meant to cover a range of local needs including support for households, small businesses, impacted industries, essential workers, and the communities hardest-hit by the economic crisis. They are also intended for investment in building, maintaining, or upgrading water, sewer and broadband infrastructure.
“We believe that we can fit in the criteria and have a strong chance to receive some favorable responses,” said Stewart of the possibility of Main Street work getting done with these dollars.
The city has also at least twice applied for the competitive BUILD (Better Utilizing Investments to Leverage Development) grants, which are federally awarded funding for surface transportation infrastructure projects. Cottage Grove has not yet been successful in securing one.
And while still too early to tell how much money will trickle down to local governments, there may also be money in the Biden Administration’s recently-passed infrastructure bill.
Whichever the financial avenue, officials acknowledge the need to do something with Main Street.
“I do think that we need to try to accommodate the uses downtown and the people that come there,” said Stewart.
There are currently drop-off zones on side streets where a reconstruction project could possibly look at installing ADA sites.
“Not to say that couldn’t be on Main Street, but I think that that really needs to go through a planning, vetted process with professionals and also the citizens included,” said Stewart, adding that he expected parking options could be created where mobility-challenged people would travel no more than 100 feet or so to their destination.
Ultimately, the conversation about mobility and parking will likely fall on the city council’s shoulders. If funding is secured, a public conversation will have to take place about the final approval of construction plans around Main Street’s refinement project, though such conversation may not happen for some months to come.