downtown

Last week, I took the following photo at the northwest exit of the downtown branch of the public library!

In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?In Case of Emergency, Break Glass?

So, you know that while I think the design concept behind the downtown library is somewhat intriguing, I am not a big fan of it as a public building. I believe that just like you and me, municipal architecture has a responsibility to be a good public citizen.

To residents, this means things not littering, stopping at red lights, and ending your 4th of July celebrations by midnight.

Public buildings have different responsibilities:

  • Respecting the street edge
  • Presenting a gracious and understandable entry
  • And perhaps most important, not trapping their occupants inside in case of an emergency

Though the entire facade (including the exit door) is made of glass, it is unlikely that occupants could break it in an emergency - it is three layers thick, plus a layer of copper mesh.

I hope there is a good reason for blockading this exit with a 2x4 from the outside but I can't think of one. While it is unlikely that there would be an emergency necessitating use of this exit, emergencies are by definition unplanned and emergency exits are not allowed to be blocked.

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Last week, I posted a proposal to convert Interstate 235 from 42nd Street to East 14th Street into a boulevard. One of the reasons a project like this could benefit the city is by reclaiming vast amounts of unproductive land as taxable property.

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Across the country, cities are looking for ways to reverse decades-old planning decisions that facilitated decline of their downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods. Some of the most brilliant and innovative projects are those that stitch together neighborhoods torn apart by the construction of interstate highways. Yes, some particularly progressive cities are actually removing interstate highways!

This approach seems counter intuitive to many people. Many Americans have grown up knowing no other option for moving people through a city or between cities. Indeed, as a means of moving a steady flow of individuals and goods across great distances to decentralized locations, the Interstate was a wonderful experiment. Intercity travel has become simple and relatively fast.

Within cities, however, we have found quite the opposite. It was assumed by early planners that adding limited access highways as another layer in a complex transportation system would facilitate easy travel. Unlike previous transportation innovations, the limited access highway has never been adequately incorporated into a healthy urban environment.

It is time to reconsider this experiment.

The Proposal

What if Des Moines were to remove I-235 from 42nd Street to East 14th? What if we converted the limited-access highway that currently divides downtown from the surrounding neighborhoods into a six-lane boulevard with integrated public transportation and lined with appropriate retail/residential and commercial development?

42nd Street marks a change in the character of the neighborhoods that surround the highway. East of 42nd, it is clear that the highway sliced through established residential neighborhoods. West of 42nd, the underlying development pattern is not disrupted to the same extent.

On the east, it is clear that any fundamental transportation planning initiative should include the Capitol complex, the river, and Downtown proper.

And yet, we should also dream big... This could be the start of a larger project to convert the highway all the way through the Fairgrounds/University exit (or beyond) on the east.

I-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevardI-235 Study Area: Proposed study area for conversion from limited access interstate highway to urban boulevard

The goal of this project would be three-fold:

  1. Knit Downtown and Capitol complex back into the street grid. Not only would this create additional land for residential and retail development, but would also drastically improve access into and out of downtown.
  2. Create approximately 100 prime "developable" acres in the central city. Sale of the land could top $26 million. Once built-up and after any development incentives have expired, the land could generate $6 million in annual tax revenue for the city.
  3. Promote more compact development and the opportunity to rethink underlying regional transportation strategy. Rather than continued expansion of the suburban and exurban fringe, the future will demand that we refocus on sustainable neighborhood redevelopment.
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I fear that we are losing the collective ability to create and appreciate good public architecture.

There are many facets to this argument. The one I will address in this post is the experience of a pedestrian arriving at and entering a public building. And what building could possibly be more public than a library, where citizens are invited in to browse through a collection of books (that they own collectively), host meetings, study, research, listen to music, use the internet, attend lectures.

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My job takes me downtown every so often for a variety of reasons. I don't typically like to park in garages, but sometimes circumstances warrant it.

Inaccessible Curb at Elevator - 7th & Grand Parking GarageInaccessible Curb at Elevator - 7th & Grand Parking GarageIn this picture, the elevator is accessed through a short walkway (note the sign hanging from the ceiling. From a pedestrian perspective, there are two major problems with the design of the pedestrian route from the elevator to the street:

  • The elevator walkway dumps pedestrians out into the automobile drive aisle instead of onto a sidewalk. The photo below shows how in order to exit the parking garage, a pedestrian is directed out into the path automobiles use to enter the garage.
  • There is a six inch drop, with no curb cut anywhere along the path of travel. Since this isn't the only elevator, perhaps it is not a technical violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, but it is at a very minimum a poor design solution.

Now, to be fair, the other elevator appeared to have a usable path from the designated accessible parking spaces to the public sidewalk. However, since the actual accessible route isn't marked, it is entirely conceivable that one could assume all elevators are connected to accessible routes. Someone with a mobility impairment could end up having to make a difficult choice between attempting to navigate the treacherous curb/auto obstacle course or trekking all the way back up and around to the accessible route. Since we know how to make an accessible path, why not just do it?

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Cars Can be Cool

03 Sep 2008

East Village Classic Car Show 2008East Village Classic Car Show 2008A couple weekends ago, we hopped over to the East Village to attend the first annual East Village Classic Car Show. The timing wasn't great (the kids are napping between 1 and 3 most afternoons), but they were more than willing to drag themselves out of their beds to see some "Hot Wheels".

An urban, pedestrian-oriented commercial district is the perfect place to host an event such as this.

  • Layering Uses - The street serves double-duty. On a lazy weekend afternoon, when there are not likely to be a lot of through traffic, it is easy to put up the barricades and reclaim the street for pedestrians.
  • Economic Multiplier - Since the retail storefronts are placed right up against the sidewalk, people attending the car show are more likely to pop in to one of the restaurants for a bite to eat or some quick shopping.
  • Mixed Use Accessibility - Residents in the surrounding apartments and condos are more likely to attend events right outside their doors.
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Larry Bradshaw of the Living Downtown Des Moines blog has posted video of a Sunday Morning stroll through the downtown Des Moines skywalk system. This stroll (sans people due to the morning hour) makes me even more sure of my earlier analysis of the skywalk system: it needs to go.

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Before diving in to the reasons the Des Moines downtown skywalk system should disappear, I'll first lay out the reason why it should stay: Iowa gets cold. It's no fun walking anywhere when the thermometer reads 10 degrees below zero, particularly if young children are involved!

That said, I think the skywalks are holding downtown back from a complete revitalization.

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Fountain at Downtown LibraryFountain at Downtown LibraryThe fountain outside the downtown branch of the Des Moines Public Library is an excellent example of a public amenity. Note the walls at multiple levels (perfect for sitting on or walking along) and the zero grade entry for accessibility. It is clearly designed to encourage passers-by to slip off their shoes and linger.

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