Tuesday, May 20, 2014

My Abram Street? Or New Urbanism's?

Today's post is mostly for my friends and fellow residents of Arlington, Texas.  It's in response to a proposal, called "My Abram Street," to narrow a major thoroughfare through our downtown district and use the reclaimed space for, among other things, wider sidewalks.  Apparently, the idea is to make the streetscape more attractive so more diners and shoppers will venture into the area - on foot.  In suburban Texas.  Needless to say, I think it's a waste of money.  I'm posting this on my blog so it can be searched by Google.
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After looking at the marketing material for the redevelopment of Abram Street, I have decided that my attendance at tonight's planning meeting would be an exercise in futility.

However, I would like to take the opportunity of sharing with you both my frustrations and my perspective of the Abram Street corridor, and indeed, downtown Arlington in general.  I think there are better ways of spending redevelopment funds.

First, it baffles me why wider sidewalks are needed along Abram, since hardly anybody uses the sidewalks we've currently got.  There are UTA students who walk ACROSS Abram to get back and forth from the fast food restaurants, and city employees who walk ACROSS Center and Mesquite to get back and forth from City Tower.  But for the most part, the sidewalks are empty.  Besides, for much of the year, the concrete serves more as a skillet in our Texas sun, than an ideal place for a stroll.

If other planned developments along Abram Street will indeed bring the throngs of sidewalk pedestrians you think it will, why not merely block off the lanes closest to each sidewalk during the evenings - like Friday and Saturday evenings?  Purchase some decorative pylons and run a truck down the street to set them up after the evening rush has subsided.  Besides, it always looks better for business if pedestrians are spilling off sidewalks into the street, than having wide swaths of empty sidewalk.  Safety?  Curbs don't keep speeding drivers from crashing onto sidewalks.  If you can get the critical mass of people downtown that you think you can get, speeding won't be a factor anyway.

I used to work on Abram Street, and a lot of civic boosters deny it, but there is indeed an afternoon rush hour.  If the additional employers come downtown, traffic will not exactly thin out.  Employers (and I certainly hope the city is spending at least as much time courting potential employers for downtown as they're spending on these street beautification plans) will want easy routes for their workers to come in and leave their offices.  Besides, the bike trend new urbanists so dearly love these days won't last forever.  If I had $1,000 for every time I saw somebody riding a bike downtown, I could probably retire... in about 50 years.

Please pardon the sarcasm, but I'm getting tired of all the Richard Florida government-needs-to-jumpstart-development-with-pretty-streets stuff.  I can be fairly open-minded about some things, but when it comes to dollars and sense, economic development is all about commerce.  People spending money.  Not governments.  We've been bragging about downtown for so long, and all we've got to show for it is a few restaurants, and some large churches who've been here forever.  That's all well and good, but I participated in the downtown "charrette" a number of years ago, and we're still waiting for blockbuster stuff to take place.  Flying Fish is nice, but when I'm over at the Uptown/McKinney Ave. district in Dallas, or Knox/Henderson, or even Lemon & Oak Lawn, I'm not seeing any bike lanes or super-wide sidewalks, and those little urban villages are jammed!

The right mix of tenants, offices, and high-density residential will create the demand gussied-up streetscapes cannot.  Is all of this fancifying for Abram (and Division) merely a smokescreen in the absence of genuine economic redevelopment?  Wasn't College Park supposed to be flying high by now?  It's got the super-wide sidewalks, bike lanes, and all that jazz... and restaurants are closing.  Hmmm...

So... please keep Abram at 4 traffic lanes and a turn lane.  If you want bike lanes, why not work with Main and South streets?  Those are abandoned stepchildren that hold a LOT of potential, don't they?  Get First Baptist to release its death grip around the Levitt Pavilion, open up South and Pecan streets to vehicular traffic, and see how easily - and SAFELY - bikes will be able to move about!  Opening up Pecan at Abram could also pump some life blood into UTA's College Park restaurants.

I have mixed feelings about tearing down the Central Library, but I like the opportunities doing so affords Main Street.  Chop off that awkward box for the City Council Chamber, straighten Main to run in line with Abram, and we've got another alternative to "car-choked" Abram.  Besides, there are some beautiful shade trees on Main east of Mesquite.  Lana's daughter used to have a restaurant down in there, and it's just rustic and bohemian enough to mimic parts of Austin, if you squint just right.

So PLEASE - don't go pouring money into Abram Street that can be better spent opening up more of downtown to economic activity.  Thank you for letting me comment.

PS - does all this seem like déjà vu?  Well, that's because it is!  Remember all of the money and effort spent to "tame" and beautify Main Street?  Look how well that worked as an economic development tool... Main Street is more dead today than it's ever been. 
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PPS - and about Richard Florida... a lot of his claims about rebuilding cities for the creative class have been debunked - even by him!


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