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Out of the Past: How we transformed a community

HAMBURG — The following guest column was submitted by former Hamburg Mayor John Thomas.

Many Hamburg residents saw a bustling business sector go downhill, during a period of time. Malls, franchise stores and big box retailers began to take shoppers elsewhere. It was common to see empty storefronts in small, close-knit communities across the country. Our village was no exception.

When I was first elected as a trustee, I became involved with business owners, other elected officials and the chamber of commerce, in the hope of bringing business back to the community.

It was very frustrating to see a major part of Americana leave small municipalities. But a light was finally seen at the end of the tunnel in summer 2001.

The New York State Department of Transportation announced that it would be reconstructing Route 62 in the village business sector, beginning in the spring. The 1.6-mile project will bury most utilities, build a new street and sidewalks, create left turn lanes, update four traffic signals and make other improvements.

This was a typical NYSDOT plan: Move traffic more efficiently. Unfortunately, this plan seemed to allow pedestrians and cyclists to fend for themselves.

It was difficult to make left turns. It took two – three light changes to clear traffic, during certain hours. The more the public saw the proposals, the more they renounced them, because the new plans were a larger version of what was already in place.

A small group of citizens formed the Route 62 Committee, which met with the DOT and expressed concerns about traffic calming, walkability and overall safety.

In fall 2001, we met the “Partners for a Livable Western New York” and Dan Burden from “Walkable Communities.”

Burden brought with him years of experience and vision. We invited him to address the DOT, our Route 62 group, local citizens and business owners.

We walked the route with Burden, who gave us some very honest opinions. He noted that the Eighteenmile Creek overlook, which runs along the southern village border, was a jewel, and recommended that more be done with the area.

He was grilled by those present at the village hall, for two days. The most difficult questions and comments came from the DOT, but Burden handled these with ease.

He eventually recommended creating four roundabouts, replacing several traffic signals, building inset parking and building curb “bulbouts.” He spoke about creating safe pedestrian crosswalks and introducing other traffic calming elements.

The Hamburg Village Board resolved to have Burden return and lead workshops for the community. The DOT not only recommended Burden’s return, but offered to pay for his trip.

The charettes, held in April 2002, ran smoothly and had mostly positive feedback. The Route 62 group dedicated itself to working together and collaborating with the DOT and the state’s design firm.

After many meetings and weeknight engagements, the Route 62 Committee became “Imagine:Hamburg.”

Our goals were to promote traffic calming and flow, improve safety for pedestrians and create an aesthetic atmosphere along the Route 62 corridor.

Period streetlights, benches, bike racks, trash receptacles, flower planters, trees and plantings, along with alley improvements and pocket parks, drew interest from members, who conducted surveys, produced informational brochures and interviewed business owners, to hear their concerns.

The stated mission and purpose of Imagine:Hamburg were to enhance, yet preserve the character, civility and livability of our village, by honoring our history and heritage, building a sense of community, encouraging a vital business climate and designing, creating and maintaining a beautiful, functional and safe place to live and work.

Skepticism about the project did come from some committee members, but I watched, as people began to see Burden’s plan as beneficial for the community. Members made the decision to accept these plans in their own time.

On Nov. 19, 2003, almost two years after Burden’s first visit, the DOT held a public hearing to solicit the public’s views, comments and concerns.

The feedback from the meeting noted a positive feeling from the community. The DOT then decided to go with Burden’s plan.

Later, “no roundabout” signs began to crop up, all over the village; change is difficult for many.

The DOT came back to our group and requested that two of the roundabouts be changed back to traffic signals. Imagine:Hamburg and the village board, led by Trustee Paul Gaughan, stood firm and the DOT renegotiated to the four roundabouts.

The final project included another 0.6 miles of Route 391 to the village line, a creek overlook and many amenities, all paid for by the DOT.

In 2009, after returning to view the work in the village, Burden left us with an “A” grade. He told Imagine:Hamburg, “Thanks to each of you, including the NYSDOT and the village of Hamburg, for its sustained courage under duress, stress, self-doubt, attacks, disgruntlements, mythologists that would not give up and other harsh conditions, for us to now herald, shout and trumpet ... to everyone who will listen about your work.

“You have more than proven the immense safety benefits, the retail, commercial and property value increases, the ease of emergency responders to use smaller roads, the increased social life of the street, the improved movement of traffic, everything any doubters might claim. This one takes you over the top.”

He said that, in the future, many people will remember Hamburg not only for the invention of the hamburger in 1885, but also for the “courage to build the finest, most modern, most balanced, most collaborative, most complete street anyone could, between a number of tight village buildings: putting this village and its people above all the rest.”

Three groups – the Hamburg Village Board, Imagine:Hamburg and the NYSDOT – came together on this project.

Imagine:Hamburg continues to be active in the village, establishing events and making villagers and visitors feel a sense of place.

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