After a series of meetings and two community open houses, the proposed aesthetic improvements were unveiled before the City Council last week.

The Oregon Department of Transportation tapped local residents to help come up with aesthetic improvements for Interstate 5 exits 14 and 19.

Last fall, ODOT asked the city to create an Aesthetic Advisory Committee to identify aesthetic improvements for the exits that serve Ashland.

In December 2008, the City Council appointed representatives from local businesses, the Ashland Chamber of Commerce Visitor and Convention Bureau and city government commissions and committees that examine planning, public art, transportation, tree and historic issues.

After a series of meetings and two community open houses, the proposed aesthetic improvements were unveiled before the City Council last week.

Landscape architect John Galbraith of Medford-based Galbraith and Associates helped the Aesthetic Advisory Committee with its work.

He said ODOT could begin working on the exits next year.

Because Ashland's southernmost exit, exit 14, provides both an entry to town and an introduction to the state of Oregon for people driving from California, ODOT wanted to put more emphasis there, Galbraith said.

The overpass at exit 14 will receive new Art Deco-style architectural features that are similar to features found on the Ashland Springs Hotel, he said.

The bridge will receive a coating of yellowish tan paint, a color similar to a palomino horse, he said.

Old-fashioned looking light posts will have lights that point downward to preserve dark skies at night. Banners could be hung from the lanterns, according to the landscape plan.

The landscaping is designed to create year-round color through plantings of flowering bulbs, flowering pear trees, ceanothus bushes that bear clusters of purple flowers, redtwig dogwood trees and native evergreen trees.

A level area is reserved for a potential future sculpture that would be visible by people who are traveling in northbound lanes from California.

The landscaping at exit 14 would have to be irrigated using city water, Galbraith said.

The issue of water use has risen in people's awareness because Ashland has imposed mandatory water curtailment measures due to low water supplies in Reeder Reservoir.

Transportation Commissioner Colin Swales, who was not on the Aesthetic Advisory Committee, said he was concerned about the use of banners on the light posts.

The banners were displayed in red with no designs in the Galbraith and Associates drawings of the planned improvements.

Their appearance is similar to the red banners with Elizabethan-style yellow lions that fly in Ashland to promote the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Swales said other towns that have Shakespeare festivals use the same style of banners. "I think they're old and a bit of an embarrassment," he said.

City Councilor Eric Navickas said he would rather see hanging flower baskets than banners, which he described as kitschy.

City Management Analyst Ann Seltzer said the Aesthetic Advisory Committee specifically requested that space be available for banners on the overhead lights.

There is no plan for a final design on the banners at this time. The city could possibly hold a design contest, Seltzer said.

City Administrator Martha Bennett said that hanging baskets would have to be watered and would be seasonal since they die in winter.

Councilor Greg Lemhouse said he hopes the design will help improve visibility for drivers and cyclists using the overpass.

ODOT staff are coming at a later date to discuss functional improvements at the exits, Bennett said.

Mayor John Stromberg said he thought an architectural feature in the center of the exit 14 bridge should be larger to create better proportions, while Navickas said the feature should be stripped away to create cleaner lines.

As for Ashland's northerly exit, exit 19, the design is more subdued.

Landscaping will include ceanothus, native white oak and evergreen trees, Oregon grape and grasses.

The drought-tolerant plantings will be watered only during their first year, Galbraith said.

"Then the natives will have to survive on their own with little maintenance," he said.

Stromberg said the aesthetic improvements at the exits help transform otherwise sterile environments.

"It pleases me ODOT is putting this kind of attention on the overpasses," he said.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.