TAUNTON — In a 21st Century fashion, Tauntonians with access to the internet can now provide their input on what they do and don’t like about downtown.
Using a website with an interactive map, residents are able to pinpoint exact locations throughout the city’s downtown area on a website and specify whether they are satisfactory or need improvement.
The crowdsourcing project was carried out by coUrbanize, a Boston-based online community outreach platform developer for real estate and community development.
“Most people don’t come to the public meetings on weeknights to voice their concerns for a number of reasons,” said Jonathan Lee, community engagement manager at coUrbanize.
“This is an online way to participate that doesn’t require attending a series of two-plus-hour meetings.”
With over 50 locations pinpointed since coUrbanize launched the interactive map at the end of March, a majority of residents have labeled areas with “needs improvement” markers rather than with positive “Great!” ones.
Responses to a number of pinpointed areas have pushed the total number of comments to over 100, Lee said. The site also includes information, updates, and links to documents related to the downtown development project.
Lee said that the community input project is separate from the city’s “Taunton Tomorrow” master plan process and is related to the city’s new Downtown Taunton Plan study that is being coordinated with MassDevelopment and two other consulting entities, RKG Associates and Over, Under.
According to MassDevelopment employee Amanda Chisholm, the study was kicked off in January and the organization has offered the city a real estate services technical assistance grant of up to $50,000 to carry out the process.
On its website, the Downtown Taunton Foundation has also promoted the coUrbanize map and provided a link to the page.
Many of the criticisms posted by residents on the map centered along the intersection of Main Street and Weir Street and cited a need for business development and traffic patterns as points of improvement.
Several comments in particular that highlighted pedestrian safety pointed to drivers who speed through areas with crosswalks.
“The traffic pattern in the Green makes it difficult to accommodate pedestrians and cyclists,” wrote Phillip Duarte, whose comment garnered support from five others.
In a similar fashion to Facebook’s “Like” function, users can also “support” comments with the click of a button.
“Main Street is a wide road and narrowing it would encourage drivers to slow down and be more mindful of pedestrian crossings,” said Colin Eklund.
“This could be done by simply extending the curb out and widening the sidewalk, moving the parking out to create a sheltered bike lane between the curb and the parked cars, or another possibility…would be to set the parking spots at an angle to the curb.”
Utilizing another feature of the website, the MassDevelopment's “Downtown Taunton Team” account replied to Eklund’s comment, stating that it was “great feedback”.
“Funny that there is not a pedestrian island here…think crossing the street here would be easier if there was a pedestrian island,” wrote Jonathan Gray in another comment, pinpointing the right turn on Court Street in front of the Bristol County Superior Court building.
Another related to pedestrian safety and the deterrence of speeding included painting “3D”-style crosswalks.
Chisholm said that MassDevelopment has been particularly interested in pursuing ideas related to increased pedestrian accessibility and safety.
A number of other improvement-related comments trended around the Green and discussed concerns such as the traffic pattern and a lack of parking.
“Currently the open paved triangle area used ... for emergency vehicle parking is a total waste of space not to mention not visually attractive to those visiting our City,” said Willitts Mendonca in another relatively popular comment.
“Great!” comments trended particularly along the eastern portion of Main Street and on the Green, citing the street’s business development and the Green’s diligent maintenance.
Others pointed to buildings like the Crocker Building and the post office as both aesthetically and historically important to the city.
“The (Superior) Courthouse is beautiful and has significant historic value,” wrote Abi Sanft.
As an added dynamic to the nature of the map, several comments expressed excitement at upcoming development projects, including the City Hall renovation.
For example, DTF Director Colleen Simmons commented on the upcoming Liberty and Union Park, which she said could be a “jewel” to the downtown by hosting events.
The DTF has identified the Liberty and Union Plaza as a central focus as the downtown development project takes hold, as well as the development of the riverfront area behind the City Hall.
“We will also explore development feasibility and strategies for activating empty buildings downtown and incentivizing additional development, including market-rate housing,” said a statement on the DTF website.
Other comments related to promoting downtown activity called for the closure of certain roadways to use for extended seating at restaurants, among other ideas.
“The road in front of City Hall could be removed, as shown in the master plan, and create an area for outdoor seating for nearby restaurants,” wrote Jonathan Gray in another comment.
In response, the Downtown Taunton Team supported the concept of throughways for pedestrian use and cited the master plan as a source of other ideas.
“We are thinking through ways to better connect people to Taunton Green and other green spaces in the downtown,” the team wrote in response to Gray.
“We are also looking to build off of some of the great concepts and ideas that have come out of the master plan.”
Over the years, Lee said that coUrbanize has offered its interactive map for projects in several other communities, including the final design for the downtown riverfront development of Nashua, New Hampshire.
The Massachusetts Development Finance Agency (MassDevelopment) is a state agency tasked with providing support to both private and public sector businesses in the form of development planning and lending to foster economic growth.
The Downtown Taunton Foundation (DTF) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the beautification and development of the city’s downtown.
“The master planning outreach revealed that the revitalization of downtown is a key priority for people who live, work, and play in Taunton,” the Downtown Taunton Foundation wrote in a statement on its website, referring to the project as a “related, yet distinct effort” from the master plan.
Residents and members of the Taunton community can visit the interactive map at http://courb.co/taunton and representatives from the Downtown Taunton Plan will be present at the Taunton Creates! Public Art Festival in May to collect feedback, as well as at a public meeting in June, according to the website.