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Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 09:28 am

Getting there from there

Might an informal “street” network help heal South MacArthur?


Redevelopment planners suggest facade and landscape changes for businesses, including Baskin Robbins, along MacArthur Boulevard.

South MacArthur Boulevard is a lot like a heart attack patient. It might recover its former vigor, but it will never thrive in the ways it did before it got sick. It will be able to survive at all only if it makes a whole bunch of smallish changes – the urbanist equivalent of quitting smoking, watching the salt, making exercise a habit and never forgetting to take its pills.

Central to the redevelopment plan put together by Lakota Group in 2010 is the creation of better environments for walkers in what is now a car-dominated, or rather a car-destroyed environment. These lucky duckies are to be catered to by new sidewalks, and three new “nodes” of commercial activity – at South Grand, at Outer Park Drive and at Stanford/Wabash – will be designed to accommodate the shoe-borne shopper.

MacArthur’s merchants hope to exploit the drivers whizzing up and down the street, much the way that mill owners used to exploit the power of flowing water by sticking a wheel into it to power their machines. But as the Lakotans noted, there’s lots of houses on either side of the street whose occupants have money in their pockets. Their market analysis concluded that MacArthur Boulevard is missing out on about $87.7 million of potential annual retail sales from its own neighborhood.

A potentially crucial aspect of the street’s hoped-for renaissance, therefore, is undoing what the traffic planners have done to it by reknitting the street into the neighborhood fabric on either side of it. What MacArthur needs is not only walkways along the street but walkways to it. The problem is, it’s hard to have a thriving, walkable neighborhood commercial strip if the neighbors can’t walk to it to shop.

In older cities, blocks tend to be short and there are lots of them, giving pedestrians many access points to their shopping street from adjoining blocks. MacArthur south of Cherry is walled off from side streets by sprawling commercial properties on the west side and extra-long residential blocks on the east side. The latter are basically a quarter-mile long. MacArthur lies only a few yards from houses mid-block on State between Laurel and Ash, but to get to it their occupants must walk an eighth of a mile to the nearest cross street, then a block to MacArthur – the equivalent of a four-block round trip just to get to MacArthur.

Good site design can obviate such problems even in new postwar street layouts. In Canada, residents of such neighborhoods are provided with pocket parks or paved pedestrian/bicycle paths that allow pedestrians to cut through blocks to get to neighboring streets; in the better curvy street subdivisions in this country, paved cut-throughs also were provided that spare kids having to cut through people’s yards as they walk or bike to school.

Where such cut-throughs aren’t provided, people usually make them for themselves. An itinerant life has deposited me in several new neighborhoods in various cities over the years. However, it never takes long to get to learn the most step-efficient ways to get to and from the local shops because locals (usually kids) have marked the way. These “social trails” – paths worn into vacant lots or parks and schoolyards and through hedges and fences – constitute a separate unofficial “street” system at the block scale.

Urban designers alert to their presence can use such social trails as the basis of a new grid for walkers and bike-riders and babies in strollers that can be overlaid on the existing landscape. The space for them will have to come from easements purchased from willing landowners, or by the city buying up lots and creating landscaped throughways that could also double as play parks or green space.

That’s because areas like South MacArthur were not designed with pedestrian access in mind. If you try to cut through toward MacArthur from Cherry Hills Drive or Iles, you are confronted first by the fenced off Franklin School athletic field, then by the solid rear wall of the old Town and Country shopping center. A footpath leads to the school from Iles but it’s fenced off from the T&C loading docks, either to protect the kiddies from the trucks or protect the trucks’ content from kiddies.

Go-getting shopping center proprietors would think about expanding non-street access points to the west, perhaps by demolishing a narrow store to create a new outdoor plaza linking the back of the center to the front, perhaps fronted by a coffee place.

Will this sort of re-knitting be complicated to do? Certainly it will be more complicated than plopping a big box store onto an asphalt plate, but that is the wrong model for this kind of mature residential district. Will it make the area more complicated to manage and maintain? Yes – complexity is what works in creating appealing human environments, and attention to management and maintenance is the price. And however much money it costs to make such changes, not making them is costing even more, in lost business.  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at KroJnr@gmail.com.

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