Thursday, June 14, 2007

Tarred with the same brush

Back in the early 1980's I wrote a satirical essay about tourism in Connecticut that was published in the New York Times. I suggested then, that since we didn't have a National Park in Connecticut, one should be established. I suggested one called MacAdam State Park which would link all the blacktop highways and parking lots in the state into one seamless, easily traveled family playground.

As my hometown, Middletown, CT, muddles through a study of how to solve its parking problem, my fear of the shroud of blacktop only intensifies. It's a complicated problem. At important times in our core city, there simply are not enough parking spaces to encourage drivers to visit our Main Street retailers, restaurants and businesses.

The immediate impetus for these thoughts is a development which is currently moving through approvals in town. On the corner of Main and Liberty Streets a developer has proposed a retail and business development. The problem is that it while it has the benefit of bringing appealing retail and a handsomely designed building to an abandoned corner, it has the negative effect of displacing an historically significant building (9 Liberty St, which is fully inventoried building on the National Register of Historic Structures, and was the former Methodist Chapel), replacing it with blacktop surface parking, and placing a surface parking lot on Main Street where a building should be. In addition, the entrance to the lot creates a car vs. pedestrian hazard.

The are several factors which complicate our city's problems:

- a highway (Rte. 9) which runs alongside the Connecticut River, and which is the only such divided highway complete with two traffic lights, just West of downtown. This highway carries the bulk of auto traffic from the North, to our city and to the river and shoreline towns. It also separates the city from the river
- a state DOT determined to eliminate the highway traffic lights, and build an interchange which will likely have a huge negative impact on neighborhoods bordering downtown
- a state DOT, which has ruinously and recklessly widened a main city thoroughfare, Washington St. (Rte. 66), encouraging more cars to pass through our burdened Main Street
- a lack of efficient mass transit
- a foolhardy embrace of surface parking lots by planners, retailers, business owners and, yes, every citizen who loves his or her car (which is nearly every citizen)
- a citizenry which would rather amputate its legs than walk the 100 yards from a centralized parking lot
- a municipal, state and federal government that doesn't really have the resources to solve the problem the right way, so is satisfied to solve it the expedient way
- a neighboring university which seems to have a passion for asphalt and surface parking which matches its passion for education

I am no innocent. I drive on highways, and park in a surface lot in Hartford every day. So, this is where the "we" comes in. We all need to work together to find solutions. My friend, architect and city planner, Catherine Johnson is always whispering revolutionary design ideas in my ears. Others, I've stumbled on in my research of the issue.

Here are some thoughts:

- Less surface lots. Especially less surface lots facing main pedestrian walkways. They are visually unexciting, virtually useless for pedestrians and dangerous if entrances cross pedestrian sidewalks. Lots facing sidewalks should be reserved for retail and residential.
- Alternative to surface lots, like smartly designed garages, on-street parking, alley systems
- Pocket parking lots hidden in the center of city blocks behind buildings
- More streets - this one seems counter-intuitive but a greater number of narrower, streets with sidewalks help traffic flow, provide space for on-street parking (both sides), encourages foot traffic, and calms (slows down) existing traffic and it encourages bike traffic
- Alternative transportation - a lot has been said about this, but not enough done. From bikes to light rail, there are some many better ways to travel than by car.

Thanks to Catherine Johnson and Jennifer Saines for their efforts to prevent development which has an immediate positive impact, but creates bigger long-term problems.

No comments: