South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”
In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.
It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.
Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.
Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.
The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.
The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.
Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.
The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.
The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.
I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.
So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.
Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.
An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Several issues remain up in the air.Â Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet SchoolÂ for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind,Â have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-districtÂ intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.
To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.Â Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establishÂ neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys,Â and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.
Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as aÂ business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.
- Deborah Moulton