San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street are now off limits to most cars. This, according to citylab.com, being indicative of a “wave of cities around the globe pedestrianizing their downtown cores and corridors…”
It is worth nothing that some college towns have been way ahead of the curve in reclaiming their downtowns for people – not just to save lives but to promote economic vitality.
I’m thinking of Pearl Street, in Boulder, Col.; State Street, in Madison, Wis.; and Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall.
I’ve walked those streets and observed a downtown street life that is more diverse, prosperous and enjoyable than anything we have here. And while Gainesville’s is primarily a nighttime downtown, those streets generate considerable daytime activity.
Boulder and Charlottesville are pedestrian malls, while State Street – linking the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol – allows buses, taxis and select other vehicles.
Here in Gainesville we close portions of University Avenue for the Homecoming Parade, and the rare Open Streets event. But that’s about it when it comes to making life a little less convenient for motorists as a trade-off for an enhanced street life.
But, what if we started out small and liberated just three downtown blocks for people? Maybe even ease into it and begin with weekends only.
Gainesville and the University of Florida will soon collaborate on a new downtown master plan. If I were looking at ways to enhance downtown’s “street cred,” while making it a friendlier and more inviting place for dining, retail and relaxation, I’d consider turning SE 1st Street, from University Ave to The Hippodrome, into a “pedestrian zone,” following the Boulder and Charlottesville (people only) model or Madison’s (vehicles restricted) example.
That stretch of 2nd is about 800-feet long, and that’s a good thing. “Car-free shopping streets have a better chance to succeed when smaller and their limited scale makes them easy to implement. Most car-free shopping streets are between one and three blocks long,” according to Build A Better Burb.
Creating a “people” corridor on First Street wouldn’t impede downtown traffic flow. It would sacrifice dozens of on-street parking slots. But with two parking garages and on-street parking remaining on the perimeters, that’s a small price to pay for a prosperous, people-centric downtown.
And there is a powerful case to be made for rethinking downtown parking.
Imagine the former parking spaces of SE 2nd sprouting outdoor cafes, street vendors, sculptures and fountains. Imagine travel lanes being given over to buskers, artists, flower sellers and street bands. Imagine an inviting place for folks to converge and collaborate, to see and be seen.
No question there would be resistance from business owners who fear the loss of nearby free parking. But the case can be made that restricting vehicles reaps greater rewards.
In a recent piece in CityLab.com, Brooks Rainwater, senior executive with the National League of Cities, cites Rotterdam’s decision to limit cars in its city center. “At first, area shopkeepers were concerned that customers wouldn’t be able to reach their shops without the ability to drive up to their storefronts,” he wrote. “But as evidence continues to show, retail actually improves in pedestrian zones.”
All I’m saying is give people a chance, Gainesville. A chance to claim a space for their own without the hassle of having to dodge heavy moving objects. It might be the key to the downtown revival that has eluded us so far.
Ron Cunningham is former editorial page editor of The Sun. Read his blog at www.floridavelocipede.com.