‘It’s about a sense of place’: Soldotna weighs in on riverfront redevelopment plan
Boardwalks, bike lanes and better business. The city of Soldotna is gathering all the ideas it can from residents and business owners before putting together a plan to create a walkable, business-friendly downtown along the Kenai River, meant to bring more traffic to the underutilized riverfront area.
Last night, the city held its first open house on the project at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Jason Graf is an urban designer with First Forty Feet, the Portland, Ore.-based consulting firm coordinating the project. He said his team has been talking to officials and property owners about what they’d like to see along the 85 acres between Soldotna Creek Park and the David Douthit Veterans Memorial Bridge.
“And to shape it into a place where you all as a community where you all as a community want to spend time,” Graf said during a presentation Thursday. “Where you feel excited about being in Soldotna.”
The city of Soldotna has long identified riverfront redevelopment as a priority, to better incorporate the river into town and create a pedestrian-friendly downtown area in the once-homestead hub. In the city’s 2015 Downtown Improvement Plan, consultants said the number-one guiding principle for the city was to “bring Soldotna to the river.”
Last spring, Soldotna got a $360,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to do it, starting an 18-month clock on the project.
At the open house Thursday, dozens of Soldotna residents and business owners marked on large maps where they already spend time in town and what they’d like to see change.
Most at the session agreed: Creating a community that’s more walkable and connects shops and restaurants, is key.
Megan Weston lives in Soldotna and is the former owner of Odie’s, which falls in the design area. She said there are some big properties near the west side of the project area, near the bridge, that are currently in private hands.
“I think really creating the walking space between Soldotna Creek and either one or both of those properties is going to make a huge difference," she said. "But it’s going to take the community standing up and saying, ‘We want this, and we want to put our money behind it.’”
Weston thinks Soldotna is up to the task.
“There’s a lot that can be done in this community," she said. "Both financially and energy wise.”
The patchwork of property ownership is one of the project's challenges. The city said it will be key to work with private property owners as it hammers out a plan.
Penny Vadla lives in the city and chairs the city’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
“I think it’s about a sense of place, and connecting people. And so I’d like to see a walkway. And if we could purchase as much land as possible, I would really like that. Because I would see people would walk more, and driving less,” Vadla said. “And I also think it’s important for kids to have that ability to see the river, and see what it has to offer and have a safe place to be with family.”
She’d also like to see the city become more bikeable, and for more art along the river.
At the session, Graf, with the firm, identified several distinct spheres in the design area, including the eastern end, which has the park and is a hub for local businesses like Lucy's Market and Kenai River Brewing.
The project could be a boon for businesses, says Mel Allen, who owns Mel’s on K-Beach.
“Just having more businesses gathered closely together, I think, is going to be such a benefit for each one of them,” she said. “Being able to walk from one to the next.”
Allen has lived in Soldotna her whole life. She said she’s seen it grow and change a lot since she was a kid. At the open house, many pointed to Soldotna Creek Park — once a Department of Transportation yard — as the centerpiece of town.
Allen said this project feels like an extension of that growth.
“A really positive extension of that. And much needed,” Allen said.
Graf said his firm and the city are planning to hold another public input session in the spring, before drawing up a master plan for the project over several months. That plan would go before the Soldotna City Council in October, according to the firm’s timeline.