Downtown Cornelius transforming one block at a time

A main thoroughfare through the heart of Cornelius is becoming tree-lined this fall as the final step in a $3.6 million project to upgrade the streetscape in that Washington County city.

Baseline Street, the eastbound leg of the Tualatin Valley Highway through downtown Cornelius, received part of its funding through Metro’s regional flexible funds grant program.

“People are beginning to dream. What else can happen?” – Ivy Wagner, Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center

Just a few years ago, the streetscape along Baseline lacked lighting, sidewalks, even safe street crossings. It had wide high-speed lanes and webs of utility wires. To eastbound travelers Cornelius was hardly identifiable as a town center, and community leaders felt it wasn’t representative of the family community that is Cornelius.

“What’s happened here in Cornelius is that people want something better for the town,” said Cornelius city manager Rob Drake. “Downtown is starting to look like a downtown.”

Today the boulevard boasts aesthetic lighting, wider sidewalks, more street parking, safer intersections, street trees, an innovative storm water management system and fewer visible utility lines.

“The street lights really make the place look better,” said Matt Murray, principal at Cornelius Elementary School. “They bring some pride to this neighborhood.”

“People are starting to dream,” said Ivy Wagner, wellness center coordinator at the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center. “What else can happen?”

Evening classes at the Wellness Center are now reaching capacity. “It feels like an awakening,” Wagner said. “Like, ‘hey, we’re a community and there are places to gather.’”

The development of the downtown area is valuable investment for a community that calls itself “Oregon’s Family Town.” Cornelius boasts a higher than average rate of homeownership than the rest of the state, and has 10 percent more children than the state average.

The Adair Street-Baseline couplet is home to Cornelius Elementary School, the local public library, the Virginia Garcia center, Centro Cultural, the fire department and the city offices, and is hugged on both sides by single-family home residential neighborhoods.

“What the road project has done, which we’re really thankful for,” Drake said, “it’s slowing people down.” With over half of the people participating in the Wellness Center programming commuting there on foot, and children walking to school along the couplet, these safety upgrades coming to fruition are having a noticeable impact.

Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington, whose district includes Cornelius, said the improvements will help people feel safe and comfortable walking to their destinations.

“It’s amazing what some sidewalks and planters can do in a community!” Harrington said in an email. “Providing choices and options for people can happen, even with small investments.”

Upgrades to Adair are already done, thanks in part to an earlier flexible funds grant, and more major projects are in the works for Cornelius. Plans include construction of a new library building that includes 41 affordable senior housing units and an upgrade to 10th Avenue.

Michele Reeves, principal urban strategist at Civilis Consultants, describes the upgrades to the couplet as having a profound impact on the way the community interacts with the downtown area. She credits developing infrastructure that moves people around the area, not through it, for creating a sense of connectivity to the town center.

Wagner reinforced this perspective, commenting that now that there is more parking, safer bike lanes, better sidewalks, and both sides of the couplet match, it is bringing a sense of unity to the whole area.

The development of Baseline is one example of the way state and regional officials can leverage financing for community development. In this case, Metro awarded flexible fund money to complement funding from the Oregon Department of Transportation and the city of Cornelius.

Regional flexible funds come from the federal government. Every few years, the Metro Council and the Joint Policy Advisory Committee on Transportation determine what the project priorities will be for a new fund cycle.

For the flexible funds cycle that ended in 2011, regional leaders prioritized projects that included new design elements including innovative storm water management, beneficial street tree design and boulevard design elements.

“This detention pond is large enough to take care of most future development for downtown with the impervious surfaces that will be formed there,” Drake said. “This was a long-term investment to help make that better … It will defer costs for future development.”

“Because of projects like the Baseline upgrades,” said Ted Leybold, transportation planning manager at Metro, “many of these design elements have become standard practice, allowing the programs’ policy focus to evolve to new topics such as building safe active transportation facilities and job creation in industrial and employment areas.”

This winter the council and JPACT will again begin discussions of priorities for the next flexible funding cycle.

Original feature appeared at Metro News.
Photo by Jennifer Park. See more in the photography portfolio.