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Parking Craters: Scourge of American Downtowns

Streetsblog’s Angie Schmitt popularized the term ”parking crater,” defined simply as “a depression in the middle of an urban area formed by the absence of buildings.”

Various types of “meteors” left behind parking craters in the 20th century — sprawl subsidies,  highway building, the erosion of manufacturing. Whatever the cause, parking craters destroy sections of downtowns and make the environment inhospitable and unattractive. In these areas, there is virtually no street life. In warm weather the asphalt makes the air more oppressive. It’s hell on earth. It’s a parking crater.

In this Streetfilm we talk to advocates in Cleveland, Dallas, Hartford, and Houston about the parking craters in their downtowns – several of which have been contenders in Streetsblog’s annual Parking Madness tournament – and how these awful craters came to be.

A final note: If this Streetfilm is well received, we intend to do a follow-up film looking at the flip side – cities that have undone their parking craters by adopting better policies.

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How Hartford’s Bet on Cars Set the Stage for Population Loss and Segregation

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region's population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: ##http://metrohartfordprogresspoints.org/##Metro Hartford Progress Points##

Since the 1960s, most of the Hartford region’s population growth has been in formerly rural towns beyond the inner-ring suburbs. Image: Metro Hartford Progress Points

Hartford, Connecticut, has one of the highest poverty rates in the country. The urban renaissance that has visited so many cities hasn’t arrived there. Housing is still cheaper in the city than in the suburbs, and although suburban poverty is growing alarmingly fast, it’s nowhere near the levels seen in the city.

There are multiple complex factors that have contributed to Hartford’s woes. But one of them, clearly, is the degree to which the city enabled car-centric infrastructure to proliferate.

As Payton reported last week, Hartford tripled its downtown parking capacity between 1960 and 2000 while squeezing everything else onto 13 percent less land. Avert your eyes if you have a weak stomach:

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Parking Craters Aren’t Just Ugly, They’re a Cancer on Your City’s Downtown

Downtown Hartford

Downtown Hartford’s Phoenix Building sits atop a moat of (what else?) parking. Photo: Brian Herzog, via Flickr

Streetsblog’s Parking Madness competition has highlighted the blight that results when large surface parking lots take over a city’s downtown. Even though Rochester, winner of 2014′s Golden Crater, certainly gains bragging rights, all of the competitors have something to worry about: Cumulatively, the past 50 years of building parking have had a debilitating effect on America’s downtowns.

Streetsblog recently spoke with Chris McCahill of the State Smart Transportation Initiative in Madison, Wisconsin, to learn about his research into how parking affects small cities’ downtowns. Most recently, McCahill and his co-authors have shown how policy makers’ preoccupation with parking not only hollows out city centers, it also decimates the downtown tax base.

McCahill began his analysis as a University of Connecticut Ph.D. student in 2006, choosing to compare the postwar evolution of six small, built-up, relatively slow-growing cities: Arlington, Virginia; Berkeley, California; Cambridge, Massachusetts; Hartford, Connecticut; Lowell, Massachusetts; and New Haven, Connecticut. For each of these cities, McCahill and his collaborators, most frequently professor Norman Garrick, have gone far beyond the usual publicly available statistics and hand-measured the number of parking spaces (both on- and off-street) and the size of buildings from aerial photos.

The resulting analysis shows how three of these cities have diverged from the other three since the base year of 1960. Arlington, Berkeley, and Cambridge went against the postwar grain and chose a “parking-light” approach: emphasizing transportation demand management (TDM) measures, while de-emphasizing driving and in one case even penalizing parking construction. Hartford, Lowell, and New Haven chose a conventional approach, emphasizing that downtown development should provide “adequate” parking based upon standards of the time.

These two paths led these cities to very different outcomes, which McCahill has chronicled in a series of publications. Most recently, he co-authored two papers about how parking has affected the six downtowns’ urban fabric and their tax bases. Parking lots take a big bite out of the conventional cities’ tax bases, which could reap 25 percent more in downtown property taxes had they chosen a parking-light approach instead.

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Greener Housing and Transportation Coming to Central Connecticut

Central Connecticut and its biggest cities, New Haven and Hartford, have never been known for strong transit, at least not compared with the parts of the state closer to New York.

Central Connecticut is about to get a lot more friendly for bus and rail commuting. And the state is taking measures to make sure the right kind of housing is in place, as well. Image: NHHSrail

Central Connecticut is about to get a lot better for bus and rail commuting. And the state is taking measures to make sure that walkable housing follows the investment in transit. Image: NHHSrail

Amtrak service between New Haven, Hartford, and Springfield, Massachusetts, has always operated sporadically and never been regular enough for commuting. But that is about to change.

The state is adding additional tracks that will make rail commuting possible when the project is complete in 2016. Meanwhile, a major bus rapid transit project — CT Fastrack — will link Hartford, New Britain, and adjoining towns along a 9.4-mile route. The $550 million project will be completed next year.

Now another critical piece of the puzzle is coming together with the state’s new budget. Governor Dannel Malloy has included $7 million in funding to support transit-oriented development in the state. The allocation was a victory for advocates for affordable housing and sustainable transportation in Connecticut.

Steven Higashide of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign said the TOD funding and the coming transit improvements will give towns and cities throughout the region an opportunity to really strengthen their downtowns. The money will be especially helpful in locations where housing markets are weaker, he said.

“Many of those towns, these are not Gold Coast, prosperous towns,” he said. “A lot of these towns are struggling and transit-oriented affordable housing in their downtowns would be a big asset.”

In financially supporting transit-oriented development at the state level, Connecticut will join just a handful of other states, including New Jersey, Minnesota, California, and Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Streetsblog USA will not be publishing on President’s Day and will be back on Tuesday.

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Guerrilla Crosswalk Turns Into Total Overhaul of New Haven Intersection

This guerrilla crosswalk preceded a safety-focused overhaul of the entire intersection. Image: New Haven Independent

Some New Haven residents were fed up with a dangerous intersection near Yale University, where repeated requests for a crosswalk had gone ignored. So one night last May, they painted a zebra-striped crosswalk on Whitney Avenue near Audubon Street.

The new intersection will be raised to improve visibility. It will include landscaped bump outs and three, faux-brick crosswalks. Image: New Haven Independent

But public officials worried pedestrians wouldn’t be visible to motorists cresting a rise right before the intersection. The crosswalk was removed by the city shortly after it was installed, according to the New Haven Independent.

But two city residents, Erin Gustafson and Doug Hausladen, saw the value in the guerrilla action. Gustafson, who works nearby, noticed cars stopping and letting pedestrians cross. The city of New Haven’s Complete Streets Manual offers a project request form that enables local residents to ask for safety improvements, so Gustafson and Hausladen formally appealed to bring the crosswalk back.

The dangerous crossing won’t be a worry any longer. As it happened, the city was working on a safety fix for the intersection at the same time as Gustafson and Hausladen, New Haven DOT chief Jim Travers told the Independent. The city will construct a raised intersection costing $320,000, with Yale chipping in $150,000.

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Connecticut Borrowing for Road Expansion Like There’s No Tomorrow

Connecticut has elected to spend up to $500 million adding two lanes to I-84 over a three-mile stretch in Waterbury. Image: Tri-State Transportation Campaign

Looks like Connecticut still has’t extricated itself from the “growth ponzi scheme” — you know, gambling on a few road widenings while the bulk of its existing assets slide into disrepair.

According to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Connecticut recently approved a $537 million spending package for transportation. And while the spending plan includes some good items for transit, the state has decided to spend a very large share of it widening a single road.

Among the projects approved is a plan to widen three miles of I-84 at a total cost of up to $500 million, or $167 million a mile. State leaders expect federal matching funds to cover 80 percent of that. But even federal matching dollars aren’t unlimited.

“To put this in perspective, Connecticut receives just $486 million a year in federal funds for all road and bridge projects,” said Tri-State’s Steven Higashide.

Higashide notes that a USA Today report recently highlighted the sorry state of Connecticut’s existing roads. The state had the second-highest percentage of roads rated in “poor” condition. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Connecticut’s bridges are considered structurally deficient.

“Committing to another pricey road widening means less funding available for maintenance, and slower going ahead,” Tri-State’s Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool said. “Furthermore, decades of experience in Connecticut and across the country have shown that highway expansion leads to sprawl development, which increases traffic and quickly re-congests the road.”

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When Livability Projects Meet Eisenhower-Era Design Standards [Updated]

Tearing down highways, as New Haven, Connecticut is planning to do to a short section of Route 34, is a rare (though increasingly sought after) outcome in American transportation policy. Some highway removals are unintended consequences of neglect or disaster, like the collapse of New York’s Miller Highway and the damage caused to San Francisco’s Embarcadero Freeway by the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. Others are planned interventions, like Milwaukee’s removal of the Park East Freeway. But the New Haven project is the first planned highway teardown to receive funding from the federal government, which awarded the project a TIGER grant in 2010.

Rendering of New Haven's "Downtown Crossing," a highway teardown that street safety advocates say could be much better. Photo: NYTimes

In many ways, transportation planning in the United States — which for decades has focused on adding more lanes to squeeze in more cars — has yet to catch up to this kind of project. What’s interesting is how the feds have funded an effort to turn a piece of infrastructure designed to move cars into a multi-modal, urban place, while at the same time requiring the replacement to operate much like a highway.

As Streetsblog reported earlier this year, the New Haven project, while a significant step forward, isn’t replacing the highway with a very pedestrian-friendly street. In the latest development, city officials dumped hard-won safety features — two pedestrian refuges nicknamed Porkchop Island and Meatloaf Island, for their shape – citing concerns that they would create hazardous conditions, which prompted local advocates to say the city has prioritized traffic over pedestrians and cyclists. UPDATED 2:54 p.m.: City officials tell us that “meatloaf island,” the northern pedestrian island, has been reincorporated into the plans.

City officials responded that they have done everything they can to accommodate pedestrians within the framework provided by Connecticut DOT and the Federal Highway Administration. And in many ways the design does go beyond what is prescribed by the higher powers, namely the design manuals published by ConnDOT and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. Because Route 34 is both part of the national highway system and a state highway, New Haven must get exemptions when departing from the standards in those guides.

To arrive at the current design, New Haven had to seek more than half a dozen waivers from ConnDOT and FHWA. They won approval from FHWA to narrow the travel lanes from 11 feet to 10 feet. They needed a waiver to eliminate 2-foot shoulders. They also won a waiver to reduce turning radii to make the road less highway-like and more pleasant for a stroll.

Then there were waivers from ConnDOT. The city needed waivers to do bike boxes, raised intersections, and pedestrian-only-phase signal timing, even though Connecticut has a state-wide complete streets policy.

New Haven officials said they received every waiver they applied for and that FHWA and ConnDOT had gone out of the way to accommodate them. But officials said there were regulatory and practical constraints in how far they could go for pedestrians and cyclists.

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Advocates Defend New Haven’s “Downtown Crossing” Highway Removal Plan

This is the city of New Haven's concept for Downtown Crossing, its plan for 11 acres of downtown land that will be cleared by the removal of the Route 34 Expressway. Photo: Downtowncrossingnewhaven.com

Earlier this week we ran a story about why local livable streets advocates with the New Haven Urban Design League are disappointed with the city’s decision to replace a section of grade-separated highway with a plan that remains, on balance, car-centric.

We soon heard from teardown proponents who remain supportive of the project. While acknowledging its shortcomings, Ryan Lynch of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign says the current project would be an important step forward for both New Haven and the state of Connecticut:

We agree that there is too much parking in the corridor, and the road remains too wide, but we have to disagree with the assertion that what is being proposed is only marginal improvement. This project, even in the first phase, will be implementing some of the most progressive transportation infrastructure in the state. Some of this infrastructure, to our knowledge, are firsts for the entire state of Connecticut, including the first ever bike boxes, separated cycle tracks, and raised intersections at particularly wide intersections.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Benton, a spokesperson for the city, took issue with some of the assertions from the Urban Design League, including the claim that the roadway replacing the highway will have no through streets. Phase I of the project — the phase that New Haven has collected about $30 million to build out — does not include side streets. Those are supposed to be built in Phase II, said Benton. Future phases are not yet funded, she allowed, but she said the city is committed to finishing them.

Benton said the city appreciates what advocates including the Urban Design League have proposed, but it’s the city’s responsibility to put forward something practical, as well as transformational. “I think it’s a testament to this project that they have been so engaged,” she said. “I don’t think their ideas are necessarily bad ideas. I think sometimes there a gap between feasible reality and what they would like to see.”

In other news about this project, Anstress Farwell, president of the Urban Design League, is traveling to Washington this week to speak with representatives of U.S. DOT about the organization’s concerns.

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Instead of Reclaiming a Despised Highway, New Haven Plans a Close Replica

The “most defacing scar from the 1960′s Urban Renewal era” — that’s how local advocates describe the Route 34 Expressway through downtown New Haven. Just about a year and a half ago, this small New England city won a TIGER grant to heal that scar. But another disfiguration may be growing in its place.

New Haven won federal support for its plan to tear down the Route 34 Expressway. But the city is on a course to build something similar in its place. Photo: CNU.org

The city’s plan to dismantle about one mile of the road in 2016 was sold as a way to open up 11 acres of downtown land to development and increase walkability and connectivity. But local advocates are sounding the alarm that it’s starting to look like 1960 all over again. Instead of reclaiming urban fabric from car infrastructure, New Haven is dangerously close to replacing one urban freeway with another urban freeway.

Last week an independent group called the New Haven Urban Design League issued a scathing, 30-page report titled “A Highway Rebuilt, Not Removed” [PDF]. In it, the League — one of the biggest proponents of the highway teardown — says the city of New Haven should scrap its current plans to build a partially grade-separated, limited access roadway and begin the process from scratch, with a public planning process.

“Essentially, the highway is being re-configured and re-built rather than removed,” the report states. “We don’t feel that $30 million in public funds … should be used to create a plan that fails.”

The problems with the existing plan are many, the League says. The plan contains two four-lane roads, less than a block apart — an “eight-lane monstrosity,” according to Norm Garrick, a transportation specialist at the University of Connecticut.

The plan doesn’t add any cross streets, obliterating any claims to improving the street grid. Furthermore, much of the new roadway design would be sunken below grade, portions of which the League claims could create an “even more formidable barrier to connectivity than the previous formation.”

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Nearly Half of TIGER Award Money Goes to Roads, 29 Percent For Transit

St. Louis' Arch grounds will get better pedestrian connectivity across I-70, thanks to a $20 million TIGER grant. Image: NextSTL

If you live in Stamford, Connecticut and your walk to the train station gets safer next year, you can thank USDOT’s TIGER grant program. Or when your hometown of American Falls, Idaho suddenly gets complete streets downtown, accommodating people on foot, on bikes, on buses, in cars, and in wheelchairs, encouraging local shopping. Or when you realize that traffic congestion between Olympia and Tacoma, Washington has eased, not by adding lanes but by installing intelligent technology to manage traffic and encourage ridesharing.

All 46 of the TIGER III award grantees have been announced now, and there are sure to be more communities disappointed than excited, given that there were 828 applications totaling $14.1 billion and USDOT had only $511 million to give. The money went to 33 states and Puerto Rico. USDOT was careful to include many rural projects, though those tend to be the smallest grant awards. Twenty of the 46 projects are in rural areas, but they only amount to about 30 percent of the total outlay. (Check out Transportation for America’s fantastic interactive map of grantees from all three rounds of TIGER.)

All in all, 48 percent of the projects fund roadwork, with about a quarter of those funds paying for complete streets treatments like the one in American Falls. Another 29 percent goes to transit – a far better shake for transit than generally comes of the normal Congressional appropriations process. Twelve percent went to ports, 10 percent for freight rail, and two percent for passenger rail.

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