Response to Walter May’s Criticism of the Mill Street Ped Mall

Response to Walter May’s Criticism of the Mill Street Ped Mall

It was interesting to read Walter May’s criticism of the Mill Street pedestrian mall in the Herald Leader on Friday July 3rd , 2009.  To some extent he has had some say in the planning of the city over the twelve years as he was on the planning commission including five years as the commission chairperson.  Looking at the current configuration of streets and sidewalks downtown makes his claim that he he a proponent of pedestrian-friendly policies at bit hard to swallow.  Not surprisingly, he is against the closing of one block of Mill St. to build a pedestrian only area.  His main complaint being that “pedestrian malls interrupt traffic flows, confuse motorists and starve properties of access”. 

In his opinion piece, he asks us to consider the fate of a business that becomes cut off from Main and Vine St. due to the closure of Mill.  Suggesting that the closure of the block would starve properties of access on the next block is misleading at best and almost makes you wonder if Mr. May is familiar with the block in question.  If you turn right on Mill St. from Main, you can only drive up two blocks before you are forced to make a left hand turn onto Second St.  There are a few properties on Mill between Short and Second, most notably a large parking lot which surely would benefit from the addition of a pedestrian mall.  If you were truly worried about access to properties, you would convert the streets back to two way streets.  Talk about confusing for a driver.  Closing a three hundred foot section of road does not hold a candle to the impossible network of one way streets in downtown Lexington.  Try to get to Third Street from Main on Mill St. – you can’t, try to take third street to Newtown Pike – you can’t, try to get from Elm Tree (Rose) to Broadway on Second – you can’t.  If Short and Second are converted to two way streets, access to the upper block of Mill becomes a non issue.

May then quotes Roberta Brandes Gratz and Norman Mintz’s book “Cities Back from the Edge”.  I was not immediately familiar with this book but I was curious about it’s title.  An ‘Edge City’ is a city which is completely car dominated and has no facilities for pedestrians or cyclists – think of sprawling suburbs where you have to drive everywhere even to get from two stores that are situated right next to each other because there are no sidewalks or crosswalks.  The book title suggests that cities need to be more pedestrian friendly which I found odd considering that he is stating an opinion against a pedestrian area.  The quote he takes from the book is that “Streets should never be totally be closed to traffic”.  Fair enough, Google tracks this down to page 127.  Here’s the rest of the quote that May left out “This might work on some short narrow streets that would not attract much traffic anyway”.  I think we can all agree that Mill St between Main and Short is not just narrow but can’t be longer than a few hundred feet and does not usually have much traffic on it since it does not really go anywhere.  What I found more interesting though was in the next few pages of the book which discuss designing downtown streets “Car traffic must be slow.  The slower the better.  Car speed should coincide with a walking pace.“ and “Cars, although important, must be secondary to the human scale; otherwise the appeal to people erodes.”.  That pretty much sums up the problems in downtown Lexington in a nutshell.  We basically have an eight lane super highway running straight through the center of the city.  We taken a city that was laid out before there were any cars and redesigned it to make it more car friendly to the point where nobody wants to get out of their car to do anything.

So what has the impact of traffic flow on Main and Vine have had on downtown development in general?  The speed on those two streets is so fast that a driver can’t possibly see the names of stores or restaurants which line the street.  Walking along the street is just unpleasant and it’s no surprise that many of the businesses that once lined Main St. have left.  Going back to Gratz and Mintz, they suggest that the top speed allowed on Main St. should be an absolute maximum of 15mph.  Although the lower speed limit would restrict traffic flow, it would also get people out of their cars which Gratz and Mintz argue is the desired effect.  To prove this point one observes that most of the new development downtown has been off Main St.  There are lots of new businesses and restaurants on less busy streets like Limestone, Short Street, and Mill Street.  Certainly there are a few exceptions on Main, but they are like Islands in a sea of parking lots and vacant store fronts. 

One thing that is true, using a pedestrian mall to revitalize a downtown area is probably a waste of money.  Cities are known for pursuing the promise of a miracle project without considering the effects the it will have on the surround parts of the city and are then they are surprised when the project fails.  These forced planning decisions not only include failed pedestrian malls, but also include shopping centers, industrial parks and even downtown hotel and condo projects.  A street that has no businesses or pedestrian flow on it is not going to be transformed into the new heart of the city just by throwing money at it to make it prettier.  City planners need to be aware of where growth is occurring in the city and help facilitate it.  This can be done by changing city by-laws, zoning laws, and improving access for pedestrians, cyclists and automobiles by creating spaces that are interesting, safe a clean.  In essence, if an area is being revitalized, it’s important to make sure the infrastructure exists to support the revitalization.  In the case of Mill Street, it is the businesses on this stretch of road that are requesting the improvements, it’s not some crazy idea that a council member is putting forward to try to revitalize some deserted stretch of road.  Suggesting that the Mill St. project will fail just because other pedestrian mall have failed around the country is very misleading.  One only has to look at a number of successful projects around the country to see how, when done properly, a pedestrian only area can be a very important and interesting part of any growing city.