Uptown project compromises

The city council will be discussing the “Uptown” project (2nd Street West of US 52) at a Committee of the Whole meeting on February 20th.  The plan that will be brought forth is a result of a number of compromises.  It does not represent what I myself would have designed, what residential neighbors would have designed, what public works engineers would have designed, not what businesses in the area would have designed.  It is a true compromise in design.

The compromise plan will achieve the following:

  • Enhanced safety for pedestrians, cyclists, handicap, and transit users.
  • Better left turning opportunities from 2nd as well as from avenues.
  • Attractive streetscape (pending utility decision).
  • Quality environmental design, including friendliness to non drivers, efficient lighting, and stormwater management.
  • Speed calming

There are a few decisions that the council needs to make but the biggest among them are to accept the current proposed design and to ensure that all utilities are put underground at the time of construction.

Here are some of major design decisions that were made.

Number of lanes 3 in the West and 4 in the East:

Neighborhood advocates, CUDE, some businesses, and pedestrians would have preferred a 3 lane section throughout.  This would create a pleasant street scape that could be easily crossed.  It would also serve to slow traffic.  Other businesses wanted 4 of 5 lanes which would maximize the velocity and volume of traffic.  Pedestrians and those interested in traffic calming wanted medians throughout, some businesses wanted left turn access throughout.  What resulted was a compromise.

In the end MN-DOT would not allow a 3 lane section with the current traffic volume on the East end.  Even champions for road diets do not recommend them with traffic counts over 20,000 trips per day.  15,000 – 20,000 requires judgement, and under 15,000 it is not a problem to do.  As such, the 4-3 conversion was performed West of 23rd ave..  A transition zone aimed at slowing traffic entering the urbanized area stretched from 23rd to 22nd ave. is made possible due to a reduced need for Left turns.  From 22nd to 18th there are 4 lanes with a shared center lane that is part median, part turn lane.  Every business has a left turn access with 1/2 of a block, businesses maintain right in accesses.  The amount of median space was greatly reduced, but should still have some effect in speed calming.  More importantly, the layout of the median strips ensure that there is a safe crossing at every single intersection between 18th and 23rd.  The one exception is at 19th where there is no median, however there is a stoplight to permit crossing.

There was one vocal critic of the 4-to-3 conversion in the West.  He went out of his way to rile up other businesses.  At my request the city traffic engineer prepared a presentation and analysis of how the 4-3 conversion would affect the area in question.  In short, it would improve the safety of all users and addressed many of the accidents that have taken place.  Upon seeing this the business owners in question understood the decision.  This one person remains unhappy, because as he put it, “the data is biased.”

Edit:  (from Lindsey Meek, CUDE chair): CUDE didn’t prefer a 3-lane. We just wanted numbers so we could have a basis for comparison and decision-making but never got any numbers. What the city proposed from day 1 and still proposes is a 5-lane with a hacked-up median.

Pedestrian, Bike, Transit, and Handicap safety:

Per the bicycle masterplan (unanimously adopted by the city council), lanes are included that will eventually complete a safe and direct bicycle route from West Circle Drive to Downtown.  This route was chosen and needed as it is the only way to cross US 52.  At 16th Avenue the lanes will move to 1st Street SW.

Pedestrian safety is enhanced in a number of way.  Most importantly there are now safe crossings at every single intersection in the urbanized section.  Today pedestrians must cross 80′ of asphalt with many lanes of fast moving traffic.  Under this new plan no pedestrian will ever have to cross more that 23′ of traffic lanes with much slower moving traffic.  This is due to the medians and traffic calming.  In addition the sidewalks running East and West will now be uniform, wider, with ADA ramps at all intersections.  Pedestrian lighting will also enhance the experience.

Transit safety is enhanced by creating permanent stop locations, better enabling buses to make left turns, creating safe and attractive bumped out areas for waiting.  In addition safe crossings can now be achieved at every stop location.

Currently this section of roadway in unsafe and unusable to handicap users.  In some locations cars overhang the public right-of-way, ADA ramps are rare and inconsistent, there is a complete lack of safe crossings.  All of this is resolved.  Further, there are places for planned of possible seating on every single block.  An additional problem was the lack of an accessible crossing at the fire station.  That is also being corrected.

Stoplights:

It was a challenge to get stoplights to meet warrants.  In the end we were able to add to lights which should greatly add to neighborhood access and safety at key times.  There will be a stop light at 23rd.  This addresses a high speed area that is also an intersection at funny angles.  This is particularly important as this is the future entrance to the Cascade Lake Recreation Area.

A light at 19th was also desired to help with traffic flow and lefter turning motions onto 2nd street.  Initially this did not meet warrants, but buy changing 18th Avenue to a 1 way North bound we eliminated a couple of issues.  1st the increased traffic on 19th allowed it to meet warrants.  2nd a severe issue of backups due to attempted left turns from 18th to 2nd street were also eliminated.  3rd, due to the 1 way traffic we were able to add significant parking spaces 18th avenue.

Remaining Decision:

I also hope that the city council will choose to bury all utilities at this time.  Planned work will reduce the amount of utilities on the North side of the street significantly, however many will stay which will inhibit the ability to plant trees or do streetscaping on the North side.  This leaves a big hole in the design.  The appropriate action, in my opinion, would be to do it right the first time.  Based on RPU figures and short term solutions we could do this for about $600k which sounds like a lot but amounts to $37k per year over a 20 year capital period.  That cost is easily offset by even the most conservative value growth estimates.

Assessments:

Assessments are part of a project like this, they are never popular.  The proposed assessments are $147.45 per foot of frontage plus $8.82 per square foot of concrete.  This is consistent with city policy.  The area enhancement to property values will far exceed assessment costs, but it does hurt businesses in the short run.  I don’t like assessments, but the state doesn’t allow cities to use better methods like street utilities.  If the city council wants to lower the assessment rates that would be great, but it is also unfair to others.

Edit 2:

I was ask why we weren’t doing some other cleaup in the area.  Ultimately it is about working with our limited financial resources.  Here are thinks that I would have liked to have done in the area, but were excluded in the end.

  • Safer intersection at West Circle Drive and 2nd Street
  • Safer pedestrian crossing at Wimbledon Hills and 2nd Street.
  • Bike Path on the North side of 2nd street West of the fire station.
  • Rebuild 3rd Street SW.
  • Complete and rebuild 1st Street SW.
  • Redesign parking on Avenues.
  • Complete zoning overlay at the same time.
  • Improve business access from 3rd Street or alleys.

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