The Gazette covers City Hall, now a flood-damaged icon on May's Island in the Cedar River

City Hall trots out street-design ideas to metro planning group; it’s not like singing to the choir

In Brian Fagan, City Hall, Marion, Monica Vernon on May 16, 2008 at 2:13 am

The Linn County Regional Planning Commission has had a new name for some months now, Corridor Metropolitan Planning Organization.

It’s comprised of representatives, many of them elected officials, from Cedar Rapids, Marion, Linn County, Hiawatha, Robins and a few smaller communities, with the city of Cedar Rapids having the most votes.

One of its primary roles is to prioritize road projects in the metro area that are deserving of certain federal and state dollars.

At its meeting on Thursday, it seemed like a nice place for Brian Fagan, the group’s chairman and a Cedar Rapids City Council member, to trot out two ideas that have gained some traction among Fagan and most of his council colleagues, but haven’t really been road tested.

The two ideas really are two pieces of the same central idea, which is don’t just lay bigger, wider stretches of concrete or asphalt without consideration for the needs of pedestrians, bicyclists, public transit and beautification. One piece is called “complete streets;” the other, Context Sensitive Solutions or Context Sensitive Design.”

At one recent Cedar Rapids City Council meeting, council member Monica Vernon, who shares Fagan’s advocacy for the ideas, at one point wasn’t sure she routinely favored turn lanes in future projects. This prompted council colleague Justin Shields, who represents a west-side council district, to sheepishly tell Vernon that the westside still liked turn lanes.

At Thursday’s Corridor MPO meeting, Fagan was leading the discussion on the complete-streets idea with the goal being for the planning group to develop a policy on using it and the context-design idea. Other planning groups and state departments of transportation suggest that such policies include the ability to make exceptions once the project cost is driven up, say by 20 percent, by the need to have, not just a street, but a complete street or a street with context sensitive design.

Well, it took no time at all for one of the Marion representatives on the planning board, Boyd Potter, to start scratching his head and wondering just what Fagan and the Cedar Rapids City Council might want the smaller Marion to sign on to.

Potter, a real estate broker, said the sound of the concepts was all well and good, but smaller cities with limited street-building funds often are looking to get “the most bang for the buck” in actually getting a street built.

Potter worried that any new design policy adopted by the Corridor board, which prioritizes street projects in the metro area for certain kinds of funding, might send a Marion project to the bottom of the list if Marion was unwilling to spend more to add some of the extras to a project.

Marion itself might not require of itself that it use sensitive-design approach, but funding for Marion projects funneled through the MPO might be held up if Marion didn’t sign on to the approach, Boyd said. He didn’t like that.

Hiawatha’s mayor, Tom Thies, said he was puzzled, too. Thies said what he knew of complete streets was that the approach most often was used in business districts, and not in streets throughout the city.

He noted that Hiawatha is opening its new  City Hall downtown, and has some street plans related to that. A discussion of complete streets might work there, he said. But he couldn’t imagine, for instance, building such a thing all the way to the western edge of the city.

If nothing else then, Thursday, Fagan and other Cedar Rapids City Hall advocates of complete streets and context design got to see what it’s like after kind of singing to the choir for months among most the Cedar Rapids City Council.

It should be noted that Fagan doesn’t seem so sure that building quality is necessarily more expensive, and he is pretty sure that building as much pavement for as little cost hurts a community in the long run.

For him, complete streets are about “connectivity” – figuring out a way to get people on foot, bikes, motor vehicles, buses, you name it, from one place like schools, neighborhoods, trails and commercial centers, to another. For him, context sensitive design is about paying attention to where “the built world engages with the natural world.”

And by way of another context: City Hall has just floated an idea its very early stages to expand First Avenue East beyond 19th Street East from five to seven lanes as the city was readying for its first election in its council/manager government back in 2005. Fagan and others now on the council mentioned their opposition to a seven-lane First Avenue East all the way to a seat on the City Council.

Just this week, too, an impatient Monica Vernon pushed Dave Elgin, the city’s public works director and city engineer, about just what complete-street features were being incorporated into the city’s plan to pave Wilson Avenue SW from Arlington Street to Stoney Point Road at a cost of $1 million. Elgin noted that the Wilson Avenue SW project had been in the shoot for some time and so did not use any formal complete-street process in its design. But he said features of the approach were used. The road, for now, will have a sidewalk on one side, Elgin noted.

 

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  1. With the price of gasoline escalating we need to look to Europe where gas has been expensive for many years. Our upper middle class and wealthy will continue to use the automobile but many will be forced to look to public transportation and foot and bicycle power to do many daily tasks. All city councils and planning groups need to look ahead and connect subdivisions to sidewalks, trails and roadways that get people to the places they need to go within the city. Europe has been doing this for many years successfully. Look at how they do it and plan accordingly.

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