Sunday, May 15, 2016

Touch My Street and Die


Tempers flew Wednesday night at a Cedar Rapids Paving for Progress open house regarding the Grande Avenue storm sewer and pavement replacement project at Washington High School. About 30 residents objected, at times forcefully, to design features in the project. City officials, who seemed prepared for logistical questions of the "How do I get little Johnny to his doctor appointment when the street is closed?" variety, appeared taken aback by the subject matters raised.

Jen Winter, Public Works Director, begins the presentation
The discussion revealed consensus on the core of the project: extending the storm sewer the length of the street, replacing 100+-year-old water main and lead water service lines, and completely replacing the pavement. No one at the meeting spoke against any of that, and in fact a few present expressed gratitude for the new storm sewer.


Grande Avenue from 21st St to Forest Dr; arrows indicate "bumpouts"
Grande Avenue from Forest Dr to park entrance
Where there were the sharpest differences arose from the city's taking advantage of the project to add some complete streets features. According to the National Complete Streets Coalition, the complete streets approach is to design streets  "with all users in mind – including bicyclists, public transportation vehicles and riders, and pedestrians of all ages and abilities [emphasis in original]." I added in my post from two years ago, "The corollary... is to allow individuals to choose their mode of getting around, rather than feel forced to travel by car because it's not safe to go by any other means of transit." Back to the NCSC for the promise to"improve safety, better health, stronger economies, [and] reduce costs," as well as reducing traffic congestion. (See also Lane, cited below.)

Both the City of Cedar Rapids and the Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization have adopted versions of complete streets policies. The principles have been applied to great effect in and around downtown Cedar Rapids, and by adding sidewalks to important pedestrian routes like Prairie Drive where they had been glaringly missing for years.

In the original version of the Grande Avenue project, presented last year, complete streets design features included [a] narrowing the street from 36 to 28 feet by eliminating parking on the south side; [b] adding a sidewalk on the south side to the one that already exists on the north side; [c] using curb extensions at intersections to demarcate parking areas and keep cars to the traffic lanes; [d] squaring intersections to improve sight lines and possibly slow turning cars; and [e] converting the intersection with Blake Boulevard to a roundabout. (They also proposed [f] upgrading sidewalk curb ramps and [g] sharrows, which do not appear to have occasioned comment or objection.) The neighbors rose up as one to object. A petition signed by all residents on both sides of the street but one--"He works for a radio station, and can't sign petitions," explained one woman at the meeting--and testimony at city meetings brought elimination of the sidewalk, the roundabout, and most though not all of the bumpouts. City officials may have felt at that point that the controversy was settled. That would explain why they were so taken aback at the open house, while residents who saw features they didn't like still in the plan--[a] and [d], as well as the rest of [c]--were frustrated and angry.

Grande Avenue is among the oldest streets in the city, and this stretch--about two miles east of downtown--has aged well. Lots and setbacks are large, but a pleasing variety of housing styles and mature trees make for aesthetic charm that is hard to beat anywhere else in the city. Its eastern end is the heavily-used Bever Park, but that's a side entrance; the main entrance to the park is off Bever Avenue, about a quarter mile to the south. Grande's average daily traffic count reported by officials at the meeting is about 700, so although I've seen it on some maps as a minor arterial, it's pretty much a side road.

Grande Avenue residents at the open house argued that any change in the appearance of the street would have a negative affect on the "historic feel" of the neighborhood. (A few went so far as to make it an issue of historic preservation.) They also argued that bicycles and city buses--two forms of transportation complete streets are supposed to encourage--are hampered by narrower streets, curb extensions and squared intersections. They feel the loss of on-street parking would be greatly inconvenient when there are events at Bever Park or Brucemore National Historic Site that draw audiences from a wide area. Moreover, they say, the problems complete streets are designed to solve--speeding cars, lack of opportunities to bike or walk--aren't problems in their neighborhood.

Officials from the city cited a number of resident complaints--presumably, not the same residents who attended at the open house--about speeding traffic. Those present and objecting to the narrower street were hardly receptive to this, or any other, information. (When one official noted, "Wider streets encourage faster traffic," one man's response was, "I don't believe it." So there.) Even if speeding does occur on Grande, it's hard to know without data collection whether it is a systematic problem, or just the occasional hot-rodder (which would be more noticeable but maybe less urgent). My observations of Grande at different times during the week shows there are very very cars parked in this stretch.
Looking up Grande from 21st St, Saturday morning 8:30 a.m.
The friction that slows cars assumes there are opposing traffic and parked cars that make drivers instinctively more cautious. Without much of either, you have what amounts to 18 foot travel lanes in each direction. Cutting that to 14 feet each way may not have any effect on travel speeds.

Speeding aside, though, what remains is a 36 foot street with an average daily traffic count of 700 and extremely little parking. In an era of straitened finances at all levels of government, it's hard to justify taxpayers paying to maintain that much superfluous pavement.

The curb extensions are expendable. The North Central Texas Council of Governments has posted a very informative slide show about curb extensions. Very little of this appears to apply to the intersections on Grande. (See also the links in Johnstone, cited below.)

As far as the expunged sidewalk goes, it's hard for me to be sympathetic to people who view putting in that sidewalk as the moral equivalent of drawing a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Sidewalks are essential to connecting parts of the city. (On the other hand, sidewalk construction and maintenance, unlike streets, are assessed to the adjacent property owner, and I'm sympathetic to that bone of contention.) But the south side sidewalk is also expendable: This situation isn't at all like that of 3rd Avenue, or for that matter Chandler Street, which has no sidewalks and is a block from Jefferson High School.

For the rest of the complete streets package, it's incumbent on the city to make the case that the design features they propose are solving a real problem rather than imposing standards on an area that doesn't want them. Otherwise, as my Corridor Urbanism colleague Ben Kaplan says, "They should just spend that money in Wellington Heights where it's really needed."

SEE ALSO:
Patrick Johnstone, "Curb Extensions," Patrick Johnstone, 7 February 2016, https://patrickjohnstone.ca/2016/02/curb-extensions.html
Scott Lane, "Show Me the Money: Why Complete Streets Make Economic Sense," Stantec, 27 April 2016, http://www.stantec.com/blog/2016/show-me-the-money-why-complete-streets-make-economic-sense.html#.VzS61XLmpJB

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