Fitzpatrick Keller Architecture

Rolling Up the Highway

November 18, 2013 admin

Main and Cedar will soon be returned to local control. This will benefit Sandpoint in many ways and the design should reflect the ambitions of the community.

Architectural Narratives #2:

Rolling Up the Highway — Main and Cedar will no longer be designated as a state highway

The by-way is complete and the long controversies that stretch back a half-century are over. I am glad Sandpoint’s Great Disagreement occurred, the by-way is far better for it. I appreciate the gabion walls (metal baskets filled with rocks) that allow for greenery. The blue neon racing stripes glowing overhead as you come into town make me smile as well. Sand Creek is as well preserved as can be expected. Sandpoint held the designer’s feet to the fire– and I think they came through for us.

Far fewer trucks and RV’s roll through town now and this is good for my silence-loving ears, but not necessarily good for all downtown businesses. A quiet town is an under-rated luxury; a forgotten town means blocks of empty buildings. In many places this might be a disaster but Sandpoint is not based on enticing passersby to stop. Our economy is based on bringing people here– as a ‘Destination Town’ we play a different game. I think the by-way will work out for us.

One of its major benefits is still to come—the decommissioning of 1st and Cedar as a state highway. This will return control of the right-of-way back to the community, to the City of Sandpoint. Dancing in the streets will now theoretically be allowed.

As a resort area our downtown has extra needs, but also it brings extra benefits and has added potentials. It’s our magnificent outdoor living room, where we entertain our guests after their day of skiing or boating. Sandpointers, of course, like our entertainment as well.  One thing we have in common with our seasonal guests, we are all looking for the good-life, in whatever form might be available.

There are no plans yet for how to respond to the change, no set date for decommissioning, and meager funds for any work. We know 1st and Cedar streets can and should change, but I’m not sure exactly how –this is the time to dream a bit, to let the town’s collective imagination throw ideas on the table.

We will no longer need three traffic lanes and the extra space could be given to pedestrians — the wide sidewalks would feel a little luxurious, almost park-like. Or we could turn the parking spaces from parallel to standard, and not only increase their number but also make them easier to use. The convenience of parking is directly related to the bottom line of businesses.  But there is no real crowding on the sidewalk as it is, and if parking is the downtown’s only design value we will soon turn Sandpoint into a shopping mall. There are other options to consider.

The simplest and cheapest might be to turn control of the added space over to the business owners, to use for outdoor dining and shop displays. Rather than enticing tourists into an establishment, sometimes it is better to take the establishment out to them. This would almost certainly help sales, at least in the summer, and if done well would add interest to the streetscape. This un-centralized approach would shelter the street from the sterility of an over-encompassing design. Also, importantly, it would place much of the care and responsibility for the space where the attention is nearest and most direct—the downtown merchants have an immediate interest in the quality of the area.

An extreme vision, on the other hand, might take a cue from European cities, where a healthy street-life never quite lost out to cars, as happened in the U.S. One striking aspect of such towns are the great expanses of outdoor tables. The entirety of the promenade blocks in Barcelona is filled with white metal tables surrounded by vinyl chairs– sandwiches, pastries, coffees and lemonades are served from early morning to well past midnight. Down by the river in Strasbourg the open spaces are filled with the very same sort of tables, as is the central plaza of Assisi. Almost every city in Europe has a well-used traffic-free core, but because of transportation issues this has proven problematic in America—we love our cars. Church Street in Burlington Vermont, and the central mall in Boulder, Colorado seem to be the rare projects that successfully buck the tide.

Holland has done quite a bit of experimentation with a milder form of traffic-free zone, which might be more appropriate to our situation. Traffic is neither forbidden nor encouraged. The idea has been slow to gain traction, the mix of cars and pedestrians seems counter-intuitive from a safety standpoint, but the research bears the idea out. Safety improves over a standard sidewalk/street design. This happens because, it seems, the psychological clues given to drivers keep them driving slowly and attentively– there is no ‘free-flow’ zone to slide through unnoticed. Driving becomes a waking activity when the security of assumed separation disappears. The psychological cues needed to make this work are: clearly marked entrances and exits to the area, usually marked with metal traffic posts; a differentiated pavement from other areas; a lack of wide, straight, and open stretches, which can be done through well-placed planter boxes. I should note that the Burlington development borrows aspects of this strategy, in order to reduce the impact of its fairly large traffic-free zone.

First Street has the raw-material needed to create a world-class place. However we decide to deal with traffic, parking, and pedestrian flow, we should keep the various aspects of great streets in mind, so that we can make full use of this potential.

The best streets have strong destination points. Burlington encouraged movie theaters to come downtown, drawing crowds and gaining advantage from the foot traffic. Sandpoint has the Panida, which is certainly no slouch when it comes to providing this sort of draw. City Beach is near enough to help out here as well.

Upper level uses are important in general. In order to concentrate activity in such a zone, more is needed than street-level retail can provide. Residential floors keep the area from feeling deserted after hours, and offices provide the street with a core user-group.

Both street-side as well as upper level dining is important. This allows people to linger and experience the street from different aspects. MacDuff’s and Arlo’s do much to give life to the street-level, Coldwater Creek has the upper level nicely covered. Still, the more such places there are, the better the area will do. Rooftop dining would be a fine frosting on this cake, but I don’t want my dreams to run too far.

The best streets tell their stories through street-art, shop displays and the architecture itself, they are a reflection of the people and the place.  Our two great streets, soon to be returned to us, have the potential to help define what our town is and is meant to be. I hope we take this excellent opportunity seriously, and do ourselves well.


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