Let’s take a look at the Henley Street suggestions made by the Urban Land Institute. It’s interesting that Henley Street made a late addition to the list since city administrators and City Council have in the past seemed to indicate they do not feel it is a problem. I appreciate the inclusion, particularly if they still feel it isn’t a problem, because that indicates a willingness to have the discussion. They really didn’t have to introduce it as a topic, and they chose to do so.
But this time the city initiated the discussion, and with much the same results as the previous studies. The Urban Land Institute clearly indicated that Henley Street is a problem, calling it a “negative influence on urban design.” Pretty strong words. They had a list of suggested changes which they feel are necessary and which might make the street what they termed a “complete street.” The amount of emphasis it received also indicated this is one of the most important pieces to our current puzzles. So Henley went from almost not on the list to perhaps the most important issue. How did that happen and what do they think we should do?
They reported attempting to cross it on foot and requiring two light changes to reach their goal. They were aware of the pedestrian overpass, but pointed out that an urban street should not need a pedestrian over pass and that if the changes they were recommending were followed it would “obviate the need for pedestrian overpasses.” This comes on the heals of an allocation to improve it.
For starters, they suggested removing a lane each way and replacing it with on-street parallel parking. Such parking would be a first step in making pedestrians feel safer on the sidewalks. They also suggested having the bike lanes which cross the Henley Street Bridge extended down Henley and, presumably, out Broadway. Noting the extremely wide plazas and blank spaces along the street, they said infilling those spaces with retail would be very important, thus giving pedestrians a reason to be there. They emphasized the importance of adhering strictly to good design guidelines for any new structures.
They expressed the importance of having pedestrians and cyclists feel as comfortable on the street as cars. Calling for an “active street edge,” they expressed the opinion that there is plenty of space for building both retail and residential structures on each side.
The Supreme Court site, which borders Henley on one side, has the potential, they said, to activate one side of Henley. (Ed. note: With the recent closure of the Vol Shop in the UT Conference building, there is the potential for additional retail in that spot.) Their suggestion for that site included retail on the ground level, I assume on every side, an entertainment or performing arts complex on the second level and, while acknowledging the top could be office space or a convention hotel, they recommended residential units as far up as the new building extends. They suggested revising the RFP to have a design focus and called for this to be accomplished by January of 2015.
So, that’s what they suggested for these two sites. I like everything about the two proposals, but I have to admit that I wonder about the practical application of the advice. No doubt these would be best uses, but how do we make it happen? Take Henley going south, for example. It has a tunnel pumping out two lanes of fast-moving traffic from the interstate. Does that get reduced to one lane to make way for parking on that side? How does a bike lane cut across the tunnel entrance? Going north bound, two lanes exit for another tunnel. Same questions.
Personally, I could see closing the southbound tunnel since traffic can exit directly onto Western, but is the city going to abandon that tunnel? Clearly it’s a hazard as it is, with the two right lanes coming in at great speed and many people trying to shift from the left lanes either to turn right or because one of the left lanes ends at Church. (Who decided it was a good idea to have the “fast” lane end at Church and the next “fast” lane end at the other end of the bridge?) So, it’s complicated.
The infill is another thing that’s hard to figure how to jump start. The city may own some of the plaza space, but do they put out RFPs for each parcel? Will banks finance retail on a dead street? What if banks won’t finance that design idea for the Supreme Court site? Does the city have tools, financial or otherwise to make these happen? If we place a performing arts center on the Supreme Court Site with several thousand seats, where do those people park?
And then there is this: Does the city have the determination and will to do something this big and bold? They asked the question and got the answer. Now what?