Monday, March 31, 2014

Independence Boulevard - Urbanizing Its Design, Part 1

I live 1,300 feet north of Independence Boulevard, and as an urban planner, I think about it a lot - namely how it's not being built to fit into an urban context.  Looking at the existing freeway section between I-277 and Albemarle Rd., there are several sites that seem to have had a rural or suburban highway design placed into an otherwise urban context. I'll run a short series on these sites, but for now, here's one section and an idea for urbanizing it a bit.

The in-town neighborhoods of Plaza-Midwood (north of Independence Blvd.) and Chantilly (south of Independence Blvd.) are both really popular for their pre-war and early post-war housing stock, local businesses and proximity to Uptown Charlotte (a.k.a. downtown).  However, the conversion of Independence Blvd. to a freeway resulted in a limited street grid - 1.3 miles between Pecan Ave. and Briar Creek Rd. with no north-south street connections.


Now given, the freeway's not being converted back to a surface street anytime soon (for now), so here's a design idea that would enable greater bicycle/pedestrian connectivity between these two neighborhoods: a pedestrian bridge, strategically-placed:

a) At a location where right-of-way/street centerlines still exist on BOTH sides of Independence Blvd.
b) At a location that allows a "midway" crossing point between Pecan Ave. and Briar Creek Rd.


A case for smaller street blocks

On a recent walk with my dog, I remembered a benefit of smaller block faces (i.e. length of a block):  they give you more direct routes, especially if you're caught in the rain!

I left the house with Miss L (my dog Loretta) amidst cloudy skies, but I assumed the rain was over.  Five minutes later, I became a victim of wishful weather thinking ("Surely the rain's over now.") and 1950s suburban street design (the era when most of my neighborhood was built).  Current Charlotte-Mecklenburg subdivision regulations (pg. 24) have smaller blocks on the books (see below), but this wasn't the case when my house and neighborhood were built in 1955.
As for my walk, my route (magenta line, image at bottom) started on Westchester Blvd. (1,089' block face), made a right onto Dresden Dr. East (400' block face), and about midway up Roanoke Ave. (1,363' block face) - the sky opened up with rain!  I ran up the remainder of Roanoke Ave., making a right onto Woodland Dr. (421' block face) and a quick right back onto Westchester Blvd and up to my house.  As I toweled off the dog, I thought, "If those blocks weren't so long, I might be little drier right now."

What IF the neighborhood had been built, or is eventually redeveloped, with a finer street grid of smaller blocks?  Looking at the grid, extending Brighton Dr. to Optimist Ln. (dashed yellow line, center of image at bottom) would make sense from a connectivity and walkability standpoint.  While current subdivision regulations require new development to have smaller blocks, there's more of challenge to retrofitting older suburban areas of the city in terms of street grids and block sizes.  Renovating an existing home or infilling new homes lot by lot is one thing, but changing street connectivity is another.  Still, models for smaller blocks exist right next to our current large ones.

In fact, my neighborhood has a nicely-scaled block (top right of image) between Norland Rd. (380' block face), Roanoke Ave. (730' block face) and Woodland Dr. (477' block face).  Next time the weather's cloudy, that's the block where I'm taking Miss L for a walk!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Close a driveway, create a sidewalk

Do parts of Charlotte need an urban design makeover?  Definitely.  I felt inspired to answer this question when I learned about Complete Blocks on PlanCharlotte, so here's an idea I've been thinking about.

Replace driveway with sidewalk, The Plaza/Central Ave.

Charlotte's Plaza-Midwood neighborhood meets at the intersection of the The Plaza and Central Avenue.  In just four corner of this intersection, you'll find a library (NW corner), a bank (albeit with a street-facing parking lot and drive-thru ATM, SW corner), a neo-Art Deco Harris Teeter grocery store (SE corner, green roof and all!) and Midwood Corners shopping center (NE corner).  Midwood Corners offers a mix of retail/services ranging from frozen custard to sushi to used books, so there are plenty of customers constantly going in/out of the parking lot via driving or biking/walking.

The parking lot's served by three driveways (one on Central Ave., two on The Plaza), but removing the one closest to the The Plaza/Central Avenue intersection would improve safety and functionality for both the shopping center and surrounding streets. First, here's a before/after view of the shopping center itself, with driveways and circulation patterns illustrated.  The conflict point in the "BEFORE" view results from right-in/right-out and left-out turns from The Plaza interacting with right/left turns, plus cars backing out of spaces, within the parking lot.



Here's how the intersection would benefit from the driveway closure:


So, how can you reduce these vehicle/pedestrian conflict points, PLUS get more parking for the shopping center?  Build a sidewalk.


This relatively simple design modification (with perhaps minor utility impacts) would improve the intersection's "legibility" by improving physical and resulting visual cues for drivers and pedestrians alike.  This would be textbook access management, which simply defined, is the process of spacing streets/driveways to improve safety and access for all users of street.  It's also good urban design, which supports the economic needs of the neighborhood (shopping center's ease of access, parking) and improves transportation conditions (vehicle traffic and bike/ped. traffic both have easier movement resulting from this design).