Yesterday, Mayor Jacques Roy and the Alexandria City Council discussed making downtown streets two-way, which, according to Councilman-at-Large Myron Lawson is a component of the master plan drafted by McElroy, Ward, and Associates. The discussion was spurred by an article that recently appeared in USA Today, concerning the city of Danville, Illinois. According to the article, hundreds of American cities have converted their downtown streets into two-way thoroughfares in order to spur economic development.

Danville is one of hundreds of cities — from Berkeley, Calif., to Charleston, S.C. — switching one-way streets to two-way to improve commerce downtown, according to the American Planning Association in Chicago. The trend got rolling in the early 1990s and has expanded this year to bigger cities such as Miami, Dallas and Minneapolis. It’s part of the reinvention of former industrial cities, which are converting empty factories into loft housing and trying to convince suburbanites that downtowns are livable.

“There’s a lot of emphasis now on taming the automobile and emphasizing walking and biking. It’s all part of creating a place that people want to be,” says Marya Morris of the American Planning Association. “The bigger pieces are the major downtown housing booms and having things for people to do after 5.”

The boom in one-way streets began with the Cold War in the 1950s, when cities planned quick routes out of town for evacuation in case of nuclear attack, says John Norquist, one of the first vocal advocates of two-way-street conversion. Norquist was mayor of Milwaukee from 1988 to 2003 and now runs the Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes the revitalization of cities.

The growth of the suburbs contributed, too, as cities smoothed the route home from work, says Neal Hawkins, associate director for traffic operations at the Iowa State University Center for Transportation Research and Education. Now, though, there are more jobs in the suburbs, more entertainment downtown, and drivers go in all directions.

They drive less efficiently on two-way streets, according to the Thoreau Institute, an environmental advocacy group in Oregon. The slower stop-and-go traffic means cars pollute more, the institute says.

In Danville, 170 miles south of Chicago, two-way streets are meant to speed an economic revival after 15 years of plant closings left downtown streets quiet. The city set up a small-business loan program to attract stores and restaurants.

Now Danville wants to make it easier for customers to find them, especially the shops on Vermilion Street.

Marie Pribble, co-owner of the Java Hut coffee shop and cafe, looks forward to the change. “The slower people go, the more likely they are to pay attention to your business or your storefront, and the more likely they are to stop in,” she says.

Norquist was one of the first mayors to promote more two-way streets. He led a campaign to convert several downtown Milwaukee streets back to two-way. He says the increased traffic means that neighborhoods flourish: “I think people started to realize that the city was more important than the road that runs through it.”

In Alexandria, preliminary plans call for the conversion of fourteen streets. This is a version of the plan, as published by the Town Talk. Please note that Martin Luther King, Jr Street (also known as 10th Street) is, for some reason, missing in action.

One Way to Two Way

It’s uncertain how this plan will affect downtown parking– already a precious commodity– or the existing businesses downtown, like the House of Java, which rely on streetside parking. But as the article in USA Today points out, this has worked numerous times all across the nation.

According to Mayor Roy, this conversion will only take place once the City determines how to resolve parking. Roy spent  part of the morning surveying aerial photos of downtown Alexandria and believes there may be existing parking lots that are currently underutilized.  Although the initial report called for the conversion of fourteen streets, the number may change. Roy believes that parking should be the primary factor in determining this conversion.

5 thoughts

  1. So the one thing I didn’t get from either this or the towntalk article — does this change actually improve development or not?

    I’d rather see them close 3rd stree completely and turn it into a pedestrian zone. That’s what they’ve done with many such streets in Germany and it’s led to quite a bit of good development.

    The parking issue brings up a good point. And, I’d like to ask for a response from any civil engineers or such out there:

    Can we actually build underground structures in Alexandria?

    I know the common idea is that the water table is too high, but it’s no higher than downtown Chicago’s and certainly much lower than New Orleans, both areas where business district buildings have basements or underground parking. There aren’t many in New Orleans, but some.

    If it’s possible (and with modern technology I can’t see how it’s not) requiring that all new consctruction have undergound parking would be the most logical way to provide parking for the area.

    In the past the city has talked of building more parking garages, but with so little space between the river and the interstate, we don’t have the room to waste that valuable groundspace. Afterall, I’ve never seen tourists attracted to a city because of all their beautiful parking towers.

  2. Will downtown become a sort of latin quarter, for young urban types, or will it develop something for all people in this area. And that was a good question, where will we park? Without study, doing something just because other cities do it, does not mean that it will work here. More input from the citizens, as opposed to vested interests and politicians, needs to go into any plans concerning downtown development. Better to do it right, than just fall in line with the other lemmings jumping off the cliff. I betcha the famous waterslide is soon to follow.

  3. Lamar,

    Tenth Street AKA Martin Luther King drive cannot be changed to two way traffic. It is a service road to I-49 as is Thorn Street on the West side of I-49. Due to the volume of traffic exiting and entering the interstate and the speed of the traffic these streets will have to remain as one way.

    I suspect that Main and Third Streets will also have to remain one way since they are state highways. Interstingly, all of the recent and forthcoming improvements to Third Street were designed for a one way street with a single travel lane and two lanes of parking. The ornamental signs and posts along with the faux brick asphalt that are going to be installed this Spring will all have to be redisigned and redone. Sounds like more work for Pat Moore.

    Finally, just because this worked in other towns and was featured in USA Today doesn’t mean it will also work here. What other sorts of programs were undertaken in conjunction with changing the traffic directions might have been equally responsible for increased activity in these downtowns?

  4. I don’t think making ALL the downtown streets two-way-traffic ready is wise, but I don’t see why MOST of them couldn’t be.

    I think Third Street SHOULD either remain a one-way street or closed to vehicular traffic from Jackson Street to the Performing Arts Center. Maybe with a bus or trolley shuttling folks from parking lots (or decks near the hotels) up the street. Imagine what THAT could do to enhance this area of downtown! It would send a message to businesses that the city is interested in making this area of downtown a shopping destination – much like the RiverWalk in Bossier City is, frankly – and the trolley/bus would eliminate the griping about parking convenience.

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