City aims to create arts, culture and entertainment district

After more than a year of tweaking and drafting, the City of Tomball is preparing to adopt its Downtown Specific Plan before the end of 2012. The plan, which regulates and directs land use in the downtown area, identifies ways the city can further develop downtown as Tomball continues to grow.

"The thought is to have something in place so that, when it's time to grow, we can grow responsibly," said Rebeca Guerra, Tomball's City Planner. "We now have an actual document we can use to ensure growth happens in a smart way, not just for the people who live and work here, but for everyone who comes in."

The DSP is being adopted by the city on the heels of several studies and plans focusing on the downtown Tomball area, including the Old Town Tomball Master Plan in 2002, the Livable Centers Downtown Plan in 2009 and the Tomball Comprehensive Plan in 2010. The DSP continues with several concepts advocated in past plans, such as making downtown more pedestrian friendly, preserving the area's history and focusing on the arts.

The city contracted Partners for Strategic Action, a consulting firm based in Arizona, to help develop the plan. The plan includes an area analysis as well as guidelines for regulation and implementation.

Before the plan is adopted, there will be one more round of reaching out to residents for comments through mail and through public hearings, Guerra said. An updated version of the plan can be viewed in its entirety on the city's website, where comments can also be submitted.

Downtown livability

A major theme throughout the DSP is the idea of shaping downtown Tomball into a place where people can "live, work, shop and play." Improving pedestrian travel and enhancing street connectivity around main street are two ways city officials hope to guide this transformation. Future plans to improve livability include eliminating on-street parking on Main Street, adding bike routes, widening sidewalks and raising medians.

Although specific timetables for some of these improvements have not been set, the city is already moving forward with several of the initiatives. The city awarded a contract in the amount of $519,000 from its capital projects fund in September to pay for the installation of two new downtown parking lots on Elm Street and Fannin Street. They are expected to be completed by the end of 2012.

City officials also contacted the Texas Department of Transportation in September regarding the elimination of left turns on FM 2920. The idea was backed by Tomball Police Chief Rob Hauck, who said it could reduce accidents and make Main Street easier for pedestrians to get around.

Making the downtown area more accessible to pedestrians is crucial to the revitalization process, said Peggy Fiandaca, president of Partners for Strategic Action.

"I see the downtown area as the heart and soul of Tomball," she said. "Main Street has a lot to offer, but the current regulations leave it unappealing for pedestrian travel. If we can open it up to pedestrians, I think we'll see both businesses and residents benefitting."

Character areas

The regulation of downtown development became much more pointed and direct when the city passed its zoning ordinance in February 2008. However, city officials have since found several shortcomings within the ordinance that the DSP will address.

Previously, the downtown area was divided into two districts: Old Town and Mixed Use. The DSP replaces those districts with six character areas with specific standards related to the distinctive aspects of each area, Fiandaca said.

"We've found that the downtown area was just too diverse for only two districts," she said. "The guidelines in the DSP are designed to keep neighborhoods safe from incompatible developments, as well as offer more flexibility to developers around Main Street."

Arts and entertainment

Building off the momentum created by several successful events at the Historic Tomball Depot Plaza this past year, the DSP looks to move forward with other arts, culture and entertainment related projects in the downtown area.

The DSP suggests the creation of an Arts, Culture and Entertainment District to further explore opportunities to develop the downtown art scene. The district would be throughout the downtown area but would be centered in the Historic Main Street and Old Town Plaza character areas. Establishing a district dedicated to arts and culture could help Tomball become eligible for funding and technical assistance from the Texas Commission of the Arts, Guerra said.

The district would also serve to turn downtown Tomball into an identifiable area of activity, separate from the rest of the city, Guerra said. The DSP suggests creating gateways through downtown to achieve a more pronounced effect.

"They wouldn't literally be gateways, but they would be markers indicating the downtown area," Guerra said. "We want to make it visually different from the rest of the city so people know it's a special part of town."

Mike Baxter, Tomball's marketing director, knows the value of a strong foundation in the arts. Baxter, who conceptualized and implemented city events such as Art Walk, Tomball! and the Tomball Honky Tonk Music Festival, said showcasing Tomball's art and culture would be especially effective in the downtown area.

"It's been proven across Texas in both small towns and larger communities that when arts, entertainment and events are introduced into the economic mix, it not only entertains, but it revitalizes," he said. "It pumps money in that can be reinvested into future events and into developing the betterment of the community as a whole."