Keep streetscaping simple

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Steve Patterson of Urban Review STL has an analysis of a plan for redoing three blocks of Euclid Avenue in St. Louis -- paving, lighting, streetscaping -- the same sort of treatment we've seen here in Tulsa along Brookside, Main Street, and in the Blue Dome District. Steve's article is full of brilliant insights about the gap between what actually makes a street lively and what cities tend to spend a lot of money on.

(UPDATE: Here's a link to a Google map of the target area. It extends one block north and two blocks south of the green arrow, from Lindell on the north to Forest Park Blvd. on the south.)

Steve attended a public meeting about the plan, and he heard one commenter suggest eliminating on-street parking altogether. Steve says that would kill the street:

“But how would eliminating parking kill the street,” you ask? Simple, we do not have the density required to keep the sidewalks busy at all times. Sure, we have a number of pedestrians now that make the street look lively but take away the cars and those same number of pedestrians now looks pathetic. We’d need considerably more pedestrians on the sidewalks to make up for the loss of perceived activity contributed by the parked cars. You might argue that removing parked cars from the street would increase pedestrian traffic but such a cause-effect is only wishful thinking. Density is what increases pedestrian traffic, not the absense of parked cars. Without parked cars the street would look vacant and as it looked vacant you’d have less and less pedestrians because they would not feel as safe on the street. Eventually we’d see less stores as a result. The street would die a slow death. On-street parking can only be eliminated in very special circumstances and none of those exist, or are likely to ever exist, in the St. Louis region. We all need to accept on-street parking as part of the activity of the street.

He also mentions that a row of parked cars provides a buffer between pedestrians and traffic, and it has a traffic-calming effect.

The proposed re-do of these three blocks is expected to cost $600,000 to $1,000,000 per block. That doesn't include $400,000 in design fees! Steve writes:

City streetscapes do not need to be fancy. They need good paving, concrete is a perfectly fine material. They need to be lined with good-sized street trees (spend a bit more on bigger trees). Streets need attractive and quality lighting, nothing too fancy or garish. In short, streets need to just be streets. Zoning, signing and things like opening windows to restaurants are the factors that make for an exciting street.

So why do designers focus on the fancy?

You see the design community has the nagging problem, the portfolio. The portfolio or gallery is where they show off their projects to their peers and prospective clients. It takes the really flashy stuff to show up well in photographs. A well-designed streetscape (or building) that is reasonable conventional but part of a dynamic urban context will look far too boring in a designer’s portfolio. Often they want projects that look exciting when empty, hard to accomplish unless you go all out.

I've heard complaints that the same sort of thing is happening in Tulsa. The reopening of Main Street left far too few on street parking spaces. The lighting in front of Cain's Ballroom is too bright (those horrid "acorn" fixtures) and at a height that blocks the facades of Cain's, Bob's and the Sound Pony from the view of passing cars. Worse still, the light fixtures actually obscure part of the Cain's neon sign.

In Brookside, the curb bumpouts eliminated some valuable street parking spaces for businesses like Shades of Brown and Brookside Lao-Thai. Overly-fancy streetscaping means that we don't have the funding to revert downtown streets to two-way as quickly as if we used basic but good street treatments.

I hope every Tulsa planner and the laypeople who sit on design task forces will read all that Steve Patterson has to say.

MORE: Steve has also posted a critique of new suburban sidewalks. Very pretty, but do they actually make the street walkable? Would you feel safe walking on them?

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Paul Tay said:

Yep, motor vehicles, bikes, and peds can all co-exixt on the SAME roadway to make for "livlier" streets. The traffic speed is inversely proportional to the width of the roadway AND the number of intricate architectual details of the fascades.

Walk Dallas West End or Venice Boardwalk sometime. Old Town Pasadena has some interesting pedestrian crosswalks near Heidi Fleiss' lingerie shop. They are diagonal, instead of perpendicular, which allow the tired, possibly drunk, pedestrian the shortest distance. Makes perfect sense as NO other place I've visited has them.

For radical streetscaping, replaced stop signs and traffic lights with traffic circles. They give off that "Continental" feel. The fire departments ALWAYS complain. But, it's all HORSE hockey. Works great in Europe. They haven't burned down yet. Yes, they are confusing. PRECISELY why they are also SAFE. Everybody's on edge, on the lookout, just like in a QT parking lot.

Another idea that makes perfect sense: King County Transit, WA bus shelters. Picture the standard Tulsa bus shelter turned 180 degrees to protect the patron from traffic, instead the landscaping. I've suggested this to Tulsa Transit. It's a great idea that's already done, so they don't like them. Nope, def don't want good ideas for pedestrians, bikes, the disabled, or bus patrons in this town, unless there's a fight, a court order, or an act of Congress.

Civil engineers of the highway ilk actively aid and abet criminal speeding with long, wide straight runways for 767's masquerading as Memorial, 169, and any other typical American roadway.

Next time cop gives you speeding ticket, take lots of pictures of the offending roadway and argue in court the ROAD MADE ME DO IT. If you lose, appeal it all the way to the SC. There's a point to be made on this issue. Who knows, you could put the highway engineers on notice to STOP with the jet runways. Stranger things have happened in court.

Tulsa Police Santa Task Force often complain Santa is a roadway hazard. PRECISELY why Santa is the SAFEST vehicle operator on the roadway, unless of course, some grinch decides to run him down into a big bloody messy PULP, with malice aforethought. Everybody sees him, even from a mile away.

Tulsa streetscapes are, for the most part, VERY boring affairs. You might light up your house and yard for X-Mas. Santa lights up the 911 switchboard AND the town!

Feliz Navidad. Feliz Nuevo Ano, hombres y hermanos!

Thanks for the compliments! Yes, one of my thoughts on Tulsa's main street & 5th was the overuse of the bulb outs leaving the amount of parking a bit on the skimpy side. Of course, the new street is a vast improvement over the prior version!

With so many of these streets it is this 'eggs in one basket' mentality of putting everthing in a few blocks and leaving the rest undone.

Patric said:

We seem to be locked into an elusive plan with no public input called
Downtown Tulsa Unlimited's "Downtown Street Furniture Standards".
Brought to you by the Tulsa Urban Development Department, Planning and Economic Development Division.

In short, it's private industry dictating how your public tax money is spent.

Aside from the nighttime visual blight (and unsafe, disabling glare) that cutesy "Acorns" represent, they are replacing existing fixtures at a ratio of about three-to-one, often more than tripling the electric bill. If someone's benefiting from this, it's not the taxpayer.

A moratorium on spending public funds on streetlights that waste more than 50% of their light above the horizon would seem to be in order, but not enough city councilors are hearing that from their constituents.
We just keep adding more, and more, and more...

And the money will come from...?

Mark Sanders said:

Patterson is right on target here. I actually lived 3 blocks from this stretch of Euclid from 1986-1990. The most shocking part of this to me is the cost. A million$/block; how could this be? We just streetscaped a comparable block in my neighborhood here in Connecticut for $100,000 . . . including design fees!

And I couldn't agree more about on-street parking. To me, it is the key element of a walkable commercial district. If pedestrians do not feel that there is a "buffer" between them and moving traffic, they'll generally not frequent an area, especially with kids. By the same token, the parked cars act to calm, and thereby slow, the moving traffic.

The local parking also helps truly local businesses stay in business. Without the additional business that short-term on-street parking can enable, what could be pedestrian and neighborhood-focused shops end up being merely storefronts for enterprises with little local constituency. This has been the fate of a key stretch of road in my neighborhood. The State removed on-street parking in the 80's to claim additional lanes for suburban commuters. What was once a vibrant small village that included a cobbler, bakery, bank branch, ice cream store etc. is now dominated by mortgage companies, office furniture showrooms, etc. Sad. The good news is that we have convinced the State to deed that stretch of road to the Town, which has promised to restore on-street parking. But now the Town is balking at the prospect of taking on the additional maintenance costs (snow plowing, paving, etc.).

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