Reimagining Downtown

This book I’ve been reading has me imagining. Every street I walk down, I see something new.

In my mind, I’m walking downtown, headed west on Eighth Street toward River.

This map is so ugly. Here we are, going for a walk!
This map is so ugly. Here we are, going for a walk!

On the ground, it looks something like this…

20130612-214302.jpg

A one-way street with slow traffic, angled parking, and wide sidewalks. It’s a pedestrian’s dream. But it ends, at River, like this…

All three lanes of glory. The corner of 8th Street and River.
All three lanes of glory. The corner of 8th Street and River.

Personally, I rarely walk down River if I can help it. The speed limit is around 45, and a little bitty curb is the only thing that separates me from the fast-moving traffic. Not compatible with a willful toddler.

Now that’s crappy. Here we have this fantastic downtown – I mean really, it’s so good that we welcome 500,00 visitors during Tulip Time each year and even Kathie Lee Gifford loves us – and we’ve hemmed it in on three sides with thoroughfares! That’s right, out-of-towners, it’s not just River… 7th Street and 9th Street are also three-lane one-way headaches.

We’ve created a beautiful, beautiful peninsula downtown. But it’s really hard for a peninsula to infect the surrounding community, with, well, its awesomeness.

Yeah, I watch a lot of cartoons.

So let’s imagine for a few minutes that these streets are just a little bit different.

A caveat here: Some of these would be easy changes; some far less so. I know that. But for a few minutes, just let your mind wander a little bit.

Now rather than the unfriendly streetscapes above, let’s imagine that they look more like this…

Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan - photo courtesy of my brother, Ben
Downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan – photo courtesy of my brother, Ben

Or this…

In the city of Charlotte, NC; click for source website.

Or even something like this…

Poughkeepsie, New York. Lots of great photos if you click through to the slide show.

Flip back and forth between those photos a couple times. The basic structure is the same, of course; they’re all traditional downtowns. But some are a lot more pedestrian-friendly and pleasant than others. Some streets looks like they would be nice places to walk, live, run errands. Ours is kind of a non-place to get through.

There are SO many options as to what to do with the area between the buildings, even when you do have a lot of traffic to move through an area.

So instead of getting to the current end of the downtown and facing a torrent of traffic, there’s a reasonable street. Maybe it has bike lanes; maybe it has parallel parking on either side creating a barrier between my kids and this fast-moving traffic. Maybe it’s shaded by trees. I think I’ll go around the corner and wander a little more, past a few more shops… my downtown has just expanded for the cost of a little street paint.

Our awesome downtown is built around the automobile, of course. Check out this map of Holland’s downtown parking – all the blue boxes are parking lots. There’s more parking than storefront! Necessary to a certain point, but I wonder what the return for investment is there.

City of Holland public parking lots
City of Holland public parking lots

So what about this?

The expanded downtown... and me at the park with my grandchild and cane. I'm a little bit realistic.
The expanded downtown… and me at the park with my grandchild and cane. I’m a little bit realistic.

What if we added on-street parking to the revised 7th and 9th streets? And what if instead of having so many crazy surface parking lots, we made space for parking only in the middle of blocks, with storefronts facing the street? What if we had three times the downtown that we do now? How awesome would that be? Can you imagine just how vibrant our downtown would be if we tripled its size, made it accessible to the rest of the neighborhood, slowed traffic so that you could ride bikes with your kids all around town…

Can you imagine?

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4 thoughts on “Reimagining Downtown”

  1. River/ Michigan/ S. Washington / Butternut (so many names!!!) is such a nightmare.
    I personally dream of having an electric street car travel from the s. washington family fare to the butternut family fare. I do not have much issue with the river crossings at 9th, 8th, and 7th st, the speed limit is 25 and traffic is typically bumper to bumper but I totally agree with the downtown being this tiny, beautiful peninsula. It’s fun to re imagine our transportation network :)

    1. Yes, a nightmare. The number of times I’ve seen someone with a walker trying to cross by the library… ugh.

      A streetcar would be FUN. That’s one of the busiest routes in town, so that’s a really interesting idea. There used to be one, of course – there are pictures of them at the Holland Archives. **sigh** :)

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