Saturday, July 26, 2008

More on Making Main a Street Again

New-to-me downtown blogger memphis Limelight posts a recap of the Center City Commission open meeting.

It makes for interesting reading, so I won't quote much. I do want to highlight a couple of things. First, here's ML's breakdown of keys to successful pedestrian malls:
* Mixed activity uses - Maybe
* Population of captive users - Yes
* Programmed activities - No
* Efficient public transit - Maybe
* Strong anchors - No
* Centralized/coordinated retail management - No
* Extensive parking - Yes (currently 22,600 spaces)
* High tourism area - Maybe
* College town or near college neighborhood - No
Memphis only hits two of those keys. ML wants to stretch some of the "maybes" and "nos" into yesses but I think he's trying to massage bad news into supporting his vision of what he wants. (She? Don't know.)

Also, there's this:
And one very community-involved downtown resident and business owner replied that there's already a test - the cops drive on it all the time and use it as their personal parking lot. She was vehemently against the proposal, based on her firsthand experience through 24 years of different phases. She was one of many that expressed frustration with the trolleys.

A spokesperson for Carriage Tours of Memphis compared Main to surrounding streets, asking for proof that traffic makes any difference. A few people pointed out that if the answer was vehicle traffic, South Main and The Pinch District would be booming.
Ahh ... the Pinch was booming when there was activity at the Pyramid and the city was trying to make it the expansion zone for downtown activity. That was before South Main took off on its own and the Pyramid closed. That's the problem with downtown: remove the government subsidies and it falls into disuse!

And the point about the police ignoring the "no traffic" zone is well made. But they aren't the only ones who do as they please along the pedestrian mall. I think that's a strong sign that Main should be made a street again.

After all, New York and Chicago get along just fine with street canyons. Just because some residents want "their" downtown to satisfy some personal desire for decoration and greenspace doesn't mean the rest of the city -- and its future -- should be held hostage to them. It's just a stark reminder of why folks move to the suburbs -- they want greenspaces, too, but are willing to pay for it themselves.

I posted a comment over at the Smart City Memphis blog (which blog I strongly recommend to folks) that's related, so I'm going to post the whole thing here. It rambles and is disjointed because I knocked it out in a space of minutes so I apologise. Here it is:
Open up Main Street to vehicular traffic, with parking along the side, same as other downtown streets. Parallel parking would offer more slots, but I'm not sure there's space enough.

Talking about inter-related problems, parking downtown is the elephant in the room that city leaders seem to want to ignore. Why hasn't the city been working to develop a space that can be converted into another parking garage, city-subsidised if need be? Instead, they keep bringing in more and more businesses and events, then let the city-as-it-is absorb the extra vehicles as best it can. Which means overstuffing the private lots. That makes no sense.

It also used to be that you could catch all the city busses you need almost anywhere downtown. When the dimwits decided to put the new MATA bus terminal at the FAR END of downtown (and it turned out to be the wrong end when the Pyramid flopped and the Pinch didn't become the growth area) it created an untenable situation.

Few people want to walk eight blocks or more from wherever they are downtown to the bus terminal. Almost as many don't like paying extra for a trolley ride or a connector bus to get there, besides the hassle of having to walk to where the trolley runs instead of catching the old busses that ran nearby.

I understand the wisdom of decreasing bus traffic so as to increase space for other vehicular traffic, but the city and MATA went too far the other way.

SCM, you might also want to look into the federal subsidies for the trolleys downtown and along Madison. The first was due to expire this year, I think, and the Madison line is due to expire soon after. That's several millions of dollars going away from MATA at a time when their fuel prices have nearly doubled. Tell me that's not a recipe for cutbacks and diminished service.

For the life of me, I do not understand why MATA hasn't been investigated. It's over-ripe for it.

And not to be too snarky about it, but the same urban design "leader" types who are redesigning downtowns today to resemble the downtowns of fifty-sixty years ago are the same twits who talked cities into creating those urban malls in the first place! Fashions and trends, my friend, and the easily-folled, gullible types who buy their blather.

Cities had strong downtowns until the Sixties because of the weight of historical inertia. It's where the businesses always had been. The majority of people at the time lived within a few miles of there, and the transportation web was designed around that centrality. Easily done; easily followed.

Then came the "sprawl" as you call it of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. It was, in my mind, the explosion of the middle-class in America which is, I think, a good and healthy thing. Folks moved farther out to find space, instead of living in cramped neighborhoods (drive through Cooper-Young and really look).

Business moved to follow them and, logically, the centrality of the downtown to a city disappeared, except as government, police and the legal establishment are "central" to daily lives. Folks didn't want to drive all the way downtown to search for parking, so offices followed too.

The idea of a "central downtown" is a holdover from an earlier era. Especially in the technology/information age, it's not really necessary. Government could, and should, build more satellite offices to cut down on travelling downtown. Police already have satellite precincts.

And using government as a tool for forcing people to move back into denser, smaller-lot or tower living is non-democratic. We used to live that way, which is why the wealthy moved out along Peabody and Madison and Monroe decades ago. The old neighborhoods between the Pyramid and Rhodes College were the sprawl of their day, but with better built, longer-lasting homes. The Parkway Villages and Westwoods of the Fifties and Sixties are a problem in the brewing that's being looked at from the wrong angle.

Anyway, enough of that. With the large populations of 21st century cities you need lots of space. That requires cars (albeit better designed ones!). That means streets and parking. Let's optimise those first.
There's an idea I just toss off above that I need to think on some more -- the idea that cities don't really need centralised downtowns anymore, now that communications technology is maturing and so much data doesn't require hardcopy to be kept on file.

It strikes me that a lot of downtown's "attractions" are publicly funded or subsidised. They are museums, Forums, public parks, events, etc. Take away that crutch, that prop, and downtown becomes a ghost town again. But the only design alternative we see are endless shopping streets like Summer, Poplar, Germantown, etc. Why isn't there a middle alternative?

Isn't part of the "lakes of tarmac" problem with suburban shopping centers that zoning laws require them to provide year-round parking sufficient for that peak shopping month between Thanksgiving and New Years? Compare the compactness of smaller strip malls with the wide-open vistas of a Sam's Club, Wal-Mart or Target shopping center. Wouldn't altering that requirement go a ways to reducing the footprint of many shopping centers?

Bunching up attractions is the conscious design theory of downtown and the unconscious imperative of Germantown Parkway. Surely the laws can be tweaked to find a middle solution? I don't see people looking for one. I wish they would.

As I noted above, I don't see the post-WWII suburban "sprawl" of America as a bad thing, a disease on America's cities. It's a sign, as clear as you can ask for, of the success of the America middle class. Of the American dream of our own homes with yards kids can play in relatively safe neighborhoods of like-minded people.

I think a lot of the folks who wish to erase the suburbs and repack people into small-scale New Yorks aren't seeing the reality of cities. They are crowded, unclean, smelly and dangerous. That's the nature of any mammals crowded together.

Scrath the folks who espouse the "new urbanism" (I'm old enough to remember when it was more honestly called gentrification.) model and you'll soon find the statist controller underneath. Crowded cities need strong governments with a lot of powers and a strong police force given a lot of leeway. They also require a plethora of commissions and associations and public-private partnerships that can stifle life's diversity. Or create one kind of government-guided "diversity" at the cost of whatever real diversity the city's residents want for themselves.

For an example, look at what Memphis' government-directed downtown puts forward. Beale Street: a huge public-drunk zone that destroyed the old, original, "real" black business zone to remake it as an oligarchic "entertainment zone" version of itself. Our "music history" is a Burgess Shale of fossilised people: Elvis, Sun and, when Memphis' black power became a reality, Stax. We're pimping the past's corpses even as we ignore the incredible wealth of new music blooming underneath us right now. There is no reason Memphis shouldn't be -- right now -- this decade's Seattle or Athens, Liverpool, or New York/London. None. The growth of museums and related public spaces is another problem, as they lock down parts of the city into staring at the past and deliberately downplay the vibrant present.

Let downtown become what it's going to become based on who lives and works there. It will be a radically different place in ten or twenty years than anything America's seen, driven by the remaining need for some City / State / Federal entities to remain, along with their ancillary industries (law, paper record-keeping, etc.) and by the actual residents.

I know. Too radical for a hide-bound place like Memphis. Maybe even for me! I like how Memphis is America's Biggest Small Town, a collection of vibrant and history-laden neighborhoods. But what's wrong with how the current residents want to shape their neighborhood? Look at Cooper-Young and what they are becoming. It's an instructive example and I'm sure there are more.

A place like Houston -- which effectively has no zoning laws or city-guided growth scheme -- is the counter-example, the warning. But the downtown-centric model is just old, out of date. We need to find that new, middle way.

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