Thursday, November 13, 2008

Washington Street & I-65/70 Update: Pedestrian Safety

I've already stated my opinions on this design in a previous post but now that much progress has been made, it's time for another look. My observations:

It seems odd that the Washington Street ramps were opened to traffic when there is clearly so much work to be done on Washington. It's interesting how it's perfectly acceptable to open the exit ramps without any permanent signage and with traffic signals hanging on wires (hopefully temporary). The signals for westbound traffic at Davidson Street are angled to face southeast. I'm not sure what that is about. But why is it viewed as acceptable to open the ramps without any pedestrian signals in place? One would presume that they will be part of the project, but perhaps it's not a big priority since there have never been pedestrian signals (at least in recent memory) at either of the intersections to the east (Southeastern/Shelby) or to the west (College). There's also little to no street lighting to help drivers see pedestrians, especially in the area of the entrance ramp to the interstate.

I also realized that I was being naive when I mistakenly believed that the exit ramp from the interstate might only contain three lanes, as was the case when it opened. Apparently, work wasn't completed, and by the looks of it, the ramp will have the five lanes originally proposed. When I asked the question earlier, I was told that five lanes were needed to make sure traffic didn't back up onto the mainline of the interstate, which would in fact be a serious concern. But how is the ramp functioning now with only three lanes? Is it backing up onto the freeway? If not, why do we need the five lanes, which will make the area even less inviting and more dangerous for pedestrians to cross?

I've walked across the intersection of Washington and Southeastern, and to cross Southeastern, a pedestrian must travel approximately 80 feet. This is a ridiculously long crossing distance. With Southeastern being realigned to a 90-degree orientation to Washington, a shorter crossing distance should've been achieved. However, the wide curb radii at the corners, which will facilitate fast turning movements was apparently more important than limiting crossing distance. Both the long crossing distance and the speed of turning vehicles work together to greatly increase the danger to pedestrians.

It's a continuing reminder that pedestrians are an afterthought, if they are even considered it all, in transportation projects in Indianapolis. I drove through the project area at 9:30 p.m. tonight, and I saw multiple pedestrian parties, both individuals and groups walking along Washington. Why is it alright to ignore their needs?

And if pedestrian needs are not considered one mile from the heart of downtown, what are the chances for us to see improvements elsewhere in the County, such as 56th & Georgetown, where a mother and her daughter were killed trying to cross the street on their way home from a grocery store two nights ago? Channel 13 reported that the police concluded that the driver was at no fault and that the pedestrians' actions were to blame, but they also went on to elaborate on the area's lack of not only sidewalks, pedestrian signals, or crosswalks, but also any street lighting that might have helped avoid this tragedy. How many pedestrians need die, and how many people who want to live in a community with balanced transportation options and safe, walkable neighborhoods need move away from, or avoid relocating to, Indianapolis, before we realize that our economic future is in jeopardy due to our automobile-only built environment?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lucas Oil Stadium

Tonight I am watching the first regular season Colts game vs. Chicago Bears. Here are my thoughts:

The overhead shots of the stadium are impressive. I do agree that having an NFL franchise, as well as a state of the art facility are positives for the region as it does shine a spotlight on Indy and says to the rest of the nation that we are a world-class city. While it's true that it doesn't take a Sherlock Holmes-like investigation to realize that the world-class city facade crumbles quickly upon venturing outside of downtown, the stadium does promote a positive image of the city to would be transplant residents and businesses. Retaining an NFL franchise won't diminish the high crime rate, won't repair and replace the long deteriorated infrastructure, and won't raise the education level of the local workforce, but it does provide an amenity to attract potential highly-educated and highly-skilled workers that will attract high-paying jobs and increase the local tax base which can directly address the third deficiency of the City, while providing an increased tax base to address the first two.

The retractable roof, as well as the sliding window oriented toward the downtown skyline, are engineering marvels, and likely add to the thrill of attending an event (I've yet to enter the facility). I was surprised to hear during tonight's broadcast on NBC that the field has no drainage capability whatsoever, thus presumably requiring the roof to be closed at the faintest threat of precipitation. While the inclusion of a roof was necessary to ensure that other events can be held at the stadium, I find it a little disappointing to deduct that the rood will likely be closed any time it's not clear and warm outside. The thought that Colts games might be subject to a little rain or snow was something to which I had been looking forward.

I walked around the exterior of the stadium the other day, first along sidewalk, from South to McCarty, from Capitol to Missouri, etc. I was really struck by the immensity of the site. It took about 20 minutes to circle the block. It seems a lost opportunity that the neither the State, nor the City, saw it necessary to maintain Merrill Street, which previously bisected the site, traveling east to west, from Capitol to Missouri. Although the diagonal orientation of the building would have required the street to be shifted slightly to the south, retention of the site would have made circulation for both pedestrians and vehicles much easier, especially on the 330 or so days of the year on which there is no significant event taking place at the stadium. I wouldn't expect a flurry of redevelopment in the area south and west of the stadium in large part due to the gigantic parking lot south of the building and the superblock created by the elimination of Merrill Street. The vibrant urban development in other parts of downtown, such as the Wholesale District and Massachusetts Avenue, depend upon the pedestrian scale environment, created in large part by the relatively small block size which is fundamental to any city. .

The Convention Center and the RCA Dome (soon to be razed and replaced with a convention center expansion) have already created one superblock that had effectively created a barrier to expansion of the downtown core prior to development of Lucas Oil Stadium. Obviously, the multiple rail tracks just north of South Street provide an additional impediment to development to the south, as anyone who's walked under them along Delaware, Pennsylvania, Meridian, Illinois, or Captol knows that these long underpasses do not exude an inviting ambience. However, if the Convention Center expansion were to somehow be designed to provide an attractive entrance from the south, unlike the imposing, uninviting behemoth of an urban structure that was the RCA Dome , it could help encourage development south of South Street.
impediment to future development.

Presumably, it would benefit the city to see high-density redevelopment of condominiums, apartments, more retail and restaurants, offices, etc. in the area south and west of the new stadium, both to increase the city's tax base and to provide additional areas for tourists and conventioneers to visit. However, in walking around both the stadium and parking lot, I didn't sense that the urban fabric necessary to spawn such pedestrian-oriented redevelopment was in place. It doesn't seem to me that it would've impeded development of the stadium or required any significant alteration to the design to maintain Merrill Street between the stadium and the parking lot, but it would've made a tremendous difference in maintaining the perception that the area is intended for pedestrian activity aside from the couple dozen annual event days. It also might have better facilitated future redevelopment of some portion of the stadium parking lot if parking garage were to ever replace some of the surface spaces.

The Colts Pro Shop is located at the northeast corner of the stadium, which would provide some activity on non-event days, however, it would have been nice to see a couple other tenant spaces built into the street level of the building, such as a couple of restaurant/bars. I don't know how the interior of the building is laid out, but from walking around the stadium it would appear that adding in such uses might be quite difficult.

My overall asssessment is that it is an attractive building as far as football stadiums (or is it "stadia") go, but given it's downtown location, a few small design considerations could have greatly increased the chance of development of a vibrant district surrounding the facility, rather than a long continuation of numerous parking lots and scarce pedestrian traffic.

As a sidenote: I find it amazing the speed at which this project moved from initial planning to completion. For example, I recall that it took the San Francisco Giants about ten years and several failed ballot initiatives before a financing plan was approved, which required that the majority of funding come from the team. The Minnesota Vikings have been attempting unsuccessfully to get Minneapolis, the State, or other local branches of government to replace the Metrodome for about a decade. Yet from my recollection this plan was put together, approved by the state, and the governing bodies of seven of eight metro counties, and underway in less than a year. There may have been some previous discussion about need for a new stadium, but I don't recall any actual plan being proposed.

Setting aside the debate over subsidizing professional sports franchises, it is a testament to the ability of government to get something accomplished in a short time period. I think the only reason it was able to occur so quickly was the combination of the Colts' popularity and the the fact that the local citizenry is generally very uninvolved in the land development process. Although there was no public review process for the design of the proposed stadium since the state is not required to comply with local land use regulations, I would suspect that in many other locales, citizens would have demanded a role in the planning process before giving their elected officials their blessing to raise their taxes for the project. Had this process not moved so quickly, perhaps, an even better design would have been accomplished.

Am I in the minority in my criticisms? Will I be proven wrong and are my concerns unfounded? Or has the City missed a golden opportunity to spur redevelopment of a long neglected and underutilized part of downtown?

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Convention Hotel Complex

Here are the renderings of the Courtyard/Springhill hotels proposed for the Marriott convention hotel complex. First is the north elevation viewed looking due south, and the second is the west elevation to be seen facing due east. Yes, the renderings are fuzzy, but this is what was made available at the Metropolitan Development Commission hearing on May 7th.

Three petitions relative to this project were approved yesterday. A rezoning of the grassy wedge at the west, which was apparently owned by and zoned for White River State Park. Variances for the buildings to encroach into the Sky Exposure Plane, and to allow for a driveway on Washington Street being 5 feet from the intersection with West Street. A vacation of all of the public right-of-way up to curbline of the all the surrounding streets. The MDC expressed a lot of concern about how the developer's attorney had modified the commitment requested by the staff that they reach an agreement with the State Patrol to ensure that the building and construction activity will not interfere with emergency communication signals that are broadcast past the site. The petitioner also slightly modified the commitment requested by staff that would require that enough space be reserved between the existing streets and the proposed buildings to construct minimum 8-foot wide sidewalks with 2 feet of separation from the curb, unless they later get the DPW to agree to less space.

I believe the only hurdle remaining is the Regional Center Approval of the designs, which is an administrative review done by City planning staff. People could probably contact them about their concerns, but I don't know if they typically consider public comments during an administrative review.

The Regional Center Zoning Ordinance does contain the following language:

The action of the Administrator upon such approval request shall be subject to

the filing of an appeal, within ten (10) days, by any aggrieved person to the

Metropolitan Development Commission.

The Metropolitan Development Commission may consider and act upon such

appeal of the action of the Administrator at any public meeting of the

Commission and shall either approve, disapprove, or approve the use, site and

development plan subject to any conditions, amendments, commitments, or

covenants by the petitioner. The petitioner or appellant, if on appeal, shall have

the right to be heard.

Thus, if the public felt aggrieved by whatever design might be administratively approved, there would be a mechanism for having the design debated in a public hearing, however, I suspect there would be a filing fee for such appeal.

My biggest concern would be that the north and west ends of the building, which are the parts that project out closest to the street appear to be nearly blank walls, with either no windows, or very small windows within a stairwell (it's really hard to be sure from the poor quality and lack of detail indicated on these renderings). I've heard others characterize the design as being an interstate off-ramp hotel, and I have a hard time understanding exactly what that means (aside from the somewhat objective position that the building would not be as architecturally "nice" as most other downtown hotels), but I think the two box signs near the top of the presumed stairwells, and the inward design are the biggest signs that this is not an appropriate urban design.

One needs to look at the site plan (this is the L-shaped building at the northwest portion of the site) to understand how significantly the ends of the building will impact its appearance. The building won't be visible from the east because of the JW, and the upper floors may or may not be visible from Victory Field to the south dependent upon the height of the ballroom that will front Maryland Street (I wonder how that will address the street). I haven't seen a south elevation. The most prominent views of the building would appear to be from the north and west. Unless someone is standing at the end of the canal, northwest of the hotel, they will be looking at one of the two ends, which I'm imagining looking like the ends of the Lugar Tower, except with two cheap illuminated boxes at the top.

Will an 8-foot wide sidewalk be wide enough to accommodate the throngs of people going to/from the 1,500 or so hotel rooms at this complex? Aren't most sidewalks in the downtown core double or more this width? How many people can comfortably walk along an 8-foot sidewalk? Probably not more than three, which would mean that two pairs could not pass in opposite directions without walking single file. Is it really impossible to design a hotel complex that could attract a Super Bowl without compromising an inviting streetscape and proper pedestrian accommodation? Will we be able to attract similar events in the future if we do?

Would it be too much to ask that if the building is going to be an L-shape, that the ends look a little better. Since when are urban buildings designed with a stairwell being the closest part of the building to the street frontage? And couldn't they at least use individual letters to identify the hotel names as most every other downtown hotel does?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Sidewalk or dirt path?

This photo is looking east along Washington Street, from Parkview Avenue (20xx block of East Washington). Whenever it rains or snows water pools on the sidewalk along with dirt from the eroding hill from the vacant lot. The storm water does not drain properly along this portion of Washington Street, resulting in the right westbound lane being underwater and the tires of passing vehicles shoot heavy streams of water onto the sidewalk and the hill. Pedestrians can typically be observed walking up the hill and through the front yard of the vacant lot at the corner as well as the occupied dwelling to the east to avoid the muddy mess. Could the City not address this issue? I'm aware that the City has a storm sewer upgrade planned nearby on Ohio Street. I hope that the upgrade is intended to correct this problem. How would a person in a wheelchair pass this area? I don't think it would be unrealistic to think that people of limited mobility might be likely to reside in this neighborhood. This is the type of quality of life issue that appears to be routinely ignored in Indianapolis.

While a fair amount of attention has been recently placed on the City's proposed zoning ordinance revisions, which would require sidewalks to be built by developers adjacent to most new development (which I strongly support), there isn't much hope for the long-term maintenance of those sidewalks, when the City can't/won't fulfill its obligation to maintain its current pedestrian infrastructure. I don't doubt that someone with the responsibility to address this issue could come up with 101 excuses as to why they are powerless to solve such a problem. Instead, they should be finding 101 similar problems to fix immediately. It wouldn't take long to put together such a list. Indianapolis has a long, long, long way to go to become a world-class city.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The uncleared sidewalk diary

Kudos to the owners of the old Fire Station at the corner of New York and Alabama, as well as the condos at southeast corner of New York and New Jersey, for having people out shoveling the sleet, snow, slush, ice off the sidewalks at 8 p.m. I would be so grateful if others would learn from these examples.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Urban Arterial Street Corridor Seeking Increased Activity - Pedestrians Need Not Apply.

Work has finally cranked up on the project to remove the Market Street ramps to/from I-65/70 while building new ramps at Washington Street. The ramp from westbound Ohio Street to the southbound Interstate has been removed. INDOT and the City had long indicated that none of the existing ramps would be removed until the new ramps were completed. Hmmm. The response from the Mayor's Neighborhood Liaison was that INDOT had studied that ramp, determined that there was low amount of traffic using it, and thus, decided that there was no good reason not to remove it first. I'm not aware of anyone in the neighborhoods having been contacted when that decision was made. It's a good thing they held public meetings to inform neighbors about the how the project was planned to proceed.

In my opinion, while this is illustrative of INDOT being out of touch with the communities they serve let alone being inept at designing safe freeways and at providing helpful information to drivers, it is merely a minor inconvenience to the neighborhoods east of the Interstate to whom this project was sold as a bill of goods. All along it was indicated that the intent was to reconnect the neighborhoods to downtown, and to give credit where it's due, the removal of the superstructure along Market Street can only help make the corridor from East Street to Pine Street more inviting as the light of day will actually shine upon the street occasionally. Of course, there are other imposing impediments to pedestrian traffic most notably Correctional Facility Canyon just west of the Interstate. (I do however, like the new paint job on the old car factory that now lives as Jail II.)

The major problem with the project is the exit and entrance ramps at Washington Street. They are way too wide and will be a death trap for pedestrians to try to cross as the intersections are widely curved to accommodate fast-moving traffic. I'm sure I might be called anti-automobile and unrealistic by some people, but you really can't design an intersection to better accommodate more convenient vehicle movement without compromising safety and convenience for pedestrians. I like to say that you can make a design pedestrian-friendly and still accommodate automobiles well, but it depends on your definition of accommodating automobiles.

If your goal is to always prevent any traffic congestion regardless of the number of vehicles using a roadway, and to keep those vehicles moving as quickly as is safely possible for drivers alone, then you can't reasonably accommodate both drivers and pedestrians, and you get the interchange design that INDOT is proposing. But if you want to do the two things that contribute most to making an intersection safe and inviting for pedestrians, which are keeping vehicle speed relatively slow at intersections and crossing distances short, and you are willing to accept that at peak traffic times, drivers may encounter some level of congestion, then you can safely accommodate both peds and vehicles, and we would be looking forward to a drastically different design for the entrance and exit intersections. I think the only thing that might have been worse is if they had chosen a design (I forget the name) like the one at I-465 & Emerson, and frankly, I bet they probably would have if the available space would have permitted it.

The Urbanophile did excellent writing on this issue last year, but it is still definitely worth a read if you still aren't quite sure what we're about to get. The pieces go into greater detail about the design deficiencies and possible solutions, which appear to have not been taken into consideration. I e-mailed the project managers listed on the City's website last summer with my concern about the intersection design and never received a response.

On a somewhat related note, I see a parallel of sorts between the decision to create a dead zone for pedestrians at the interchange, and the decision of the Metropolitan Development Commission yesterday to approve a rezoning at the southwest corner of Washington and State (just about a half-mile to the east) for retail development without any requirement that a building(s) be constructed up close to the street. The MDC summarily dismissed the requests of its planning staff, a local neighborhood organization, and the umbrella organization representing all neighborhood groups on the Near Eastside who advocated strongly for some commitment to a site design that would be pedestrian-friendly and at least modestly sensitive to the context of its urban location.

Of course, the most appropriate method for requiring good urban design would be through wholesale changes to the City-County's one-size-fits-all zoning ordinances which are designed to crank out auto-oriented, pedestrian-hostile, suburban-style development. While I'm not holding my breath just yet, I would strongly encourage citizens to contact their City-County Councilors and voice their opinions. I am hopeful that there are many inner-city residents out there who are tired of seeing what's left of the fabric of our urban neighborhoods being further deteriorated by improperly designed urban development, and who might come to realize that ours is not a city who's government will lead on such an issue, rather one who will only react to the problem if the perceive it to be a crisis.