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Editorial: Main Street can handle change

John Ketner is right.

At least partially.

The commercial real estate owner was one of many to speak during a public comment period Saturday about the city’s Main Street plan. The plan would result in a reduction in travel lanes — from four to three — on Main Street in downtown, an increase in parking spaces and streetscape design intended to appeal to pedestrians.

There were plenty of salient points made during the public comment period, but Ketner’s were particularly good. His three points build on one another.

Ketner said visitors, consumers and residents in the city primarily travel by car. It’s something unlikely to change in the near future.

“Our community is suburban in nature and most of us use our vehicles to move around,” he told the Salisbury City Council. “We do not want to introduce changes that make movements in and around our downtown more difficult.”

Second, he said, a vibrant downtown Salisbury requires more people. We agree. The key to Salisbury’s future is more residential space above shops as well as converting entire buildings to apartments.

Ketner said more cars will come with people. The three-lane setup could become troublesome if Salisbury is more successful than currently projected in attracting people downtown, he said.

Third, the pandemic is producing changes in the real estate business. Among the changes: buildings constructed for offices being converted to apartments before the investor has recouped his or her money. He referred to it as short cycling.

“The pandemic and the short cycling happening in the industry are demonstrating that our community’s real estate needs are changing more quickly than ever,” he said. “The takeaway for Salisbury is that we can continue to make our historic buildings productive and useful, but we need to allow maximum flexibility to remain relevant. Having four lanes of travel provides us with that flexibility.”

Ketner’s comments cut to some of the most critical questions facing the council: cars, people and buildings.

As it pertains to cars, a question that will be decisive is whether the three-lane setup actually will be bothersome enough to prevent people from coming to downtown Salisbury to shop and eat.

Because downtown Salisbury is heavily reliant on people driving from elsewhere in the city or county, it’s still important to consider whether traffic condensed into one lane will create delays at traffic lights on Main Street that will cause people to say, “Enough.”

That’s unlikely to happen, particularly because the biggest traffic backups in downtown usually occur on Innes Street during the afternoon commute. On Main Street, cars already are forced to drive in the left lane in the first blocks on the north and south side of the Square because of the way parking spaces are laid out. In the busiest of times, drivers may wait through multiple traffic light cycles, but that would be the case anyway with four lanes.

Downtown faces an immediate future with a large storefront being empty — the current site of The Smoke Pit. Because it’s one of the biggest draws, downtown first has to contend with a future that includes less traffic.

Retail stores, meanwhile, will continue to battle an increasing preference for online shopping. Some will adapt. Others won’t. That’s why more residential units are key to preventing buildings from being vacant.

If Salisbury hopes to make Main Street an attractive place for new people to move, it needs to focus on curb appeal, and a new streetscape can help provide exactly that.

Multiple loading zones will alleviate concerns about deliveries. There could end up being an increase in downtown parking spaces. The current plan will almost eliminate worries about vehicles sticking out into the road.

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