Post #380: Sidewalk alignment and avoiding a waste of space

Posted on September 12, 2019

I want to make two simple points in this posting.

First, when I said the MAC sidewalks would not align with existing sidewalks, I was wrong.  They will, because the proposed 6′ buffer between the road and sidewalk, under MAC, is not new.  For almost all of Maple, it just matches what we already have.

Second,  if we are determined to have a 28′ wide sidewalk along Maple, my suggestion is not to waste it on outdoor seating that isn’t going to be used.  Maybe set it up to carry a “shared use trail” (a.k.a., a bike path) and integrate that with an eventual multimodal transit plan.

The upshot of that second point is that instead of ignoring the fact that Maple Avenue is an unpleasant transit corridor now, due to the traffic, it might be more efficient to acknowledge that and run with it.  It’s a traffic corridor.  Rather perfuming the pig, it might make more sense to focus on making it a better traffic corridor.

Correcting my error

Will the new “MAC” sidewalks like up with the existing sidewalks?  And if not, how do you plan to deal with that?

I answered that incorrectly in the past, and I need to correct that.  That was one of the things that came out at the 9/9/2019 Town Council work session.  The new MAC streetscape adds a 6′ wide buffer between the road and the sidewalk.  Based on that, and the pedestrian safety and comfort benefits that were attributed to that new buffer, I had assumed that the new sidewalk would not align with the old one.  I mean, if you add 6′ between the sidewalk and the road under the new MAC streetscape, how could the old and new sidewalks align?

Oh, for dumb.  I should have looked a a few pictures before I spoke.  The answer is that we already have a 6′ buffer between the road and the sidewalk.  Except in a handful of places where (e.g.) some landscaping juts into that space and forces the sidewalk closer to the road.  (Or in the Historic Mattress District, where the sidewalk is narrow.  Or right at Nutley and Maple, where the buffer strip has been narrowed to accommodate a slightly larger roadway.  Or some parts east of East Street, which do not matter for MAC.)

So of course you can line up the new and old sidewalks.  It was foolish of me to have said otherwise.  But that’s because the 6′ buffer strip between road and sidewalk isn’t new.  It’s what we have now.  For the length of Maple, with few exceptions, the sidewalks are 11′ to 12′ wide, consisting of a 6′ buffer strip and a 5′ ribbon of concrete.  So the answer is, the sidewalks will align, because that 6′ buffer between road and sidewalk isn’t new.  It’s what we already have on Maple.

Here’s Maple and Wade Hampton.  The sidewalk consists of a 5′ concrete ribbon and a 6′ buffer strip between sidewalk and road, for a total of 11′.

This of course raises an obvious question:  Whatever the Town is planning for that 6′ buffer strip under MAC, couldn’t they do that to the existing 6′ strip?  And, more-or-less making the same point, there’s no more buffer between pedestrians and traffic under MAC than there is now.

Don’t waste the space

One of the things I have learned through analysis of MAC is how valuable every square foot of land is along Maple Avenue.  For example, ceding just four feet of the Wade Hampton roadway to the 380 Maple West developer allows for the construction of an additional $1.3M worth of building (by my calculation, Post #301).  In round numbers, with MAC-style development, for every square foot of land, you can build (at three sellable stories) maybe $1200 worth of sellable floor area on or above it.

Right now, the Maple Avenue sidewalks run about 11′ wide, per the discussion just above.  MAC as currently written would require 20′.  And now the Town would like to create a uniform 28′ wide sidewalk.

Again, just in round numbers, for MAC projects, that change — that additional 8′ setback — reduces the value of the resulting building by ($1200/square foot x 8 square feet =) roughly $10,000 per linear foot of Maple Avenue.  E.g., for the lot at Maple and Center where Sunrise wanted to build, with roughly 200 feet of Maple Avenue frontage, this change in the setback would reduce the value of the building by maybe $2M.

The question is, what do we get for that?  My answer is, maybe it will look a little nicer.  And it might be easier for bicyclists to pass people on the sidewalk.  But that’s about it.  Mainly, I think that the idea that this broad sidewalk will become pleasant dining or gathering space is kind of crazy, due to the noise and pollution levels directly adjacent to Maple.  This is a point I’ve made repeatedly on this website.

So I could see this going in one of two directions.

One is that we continue to pretend that the sidewalk adjacent to Maple is some sort of wonderful public amenity.  We set it up for pleasant strolling and street-side dining.  But in the long run, reality matters.  The reality is, it’s not a pleasant space.  So we we end up wasting the space, because nobody’s going to want to sip their Frappucino® on a Saturday afternoon 20′ from the stream of Maple Avenue traffic.

The alternative view is that we acknowledge that Maple is mostly a way to get from one place to another.  It’s a transportation corridor.  And we run with that.  We try to make it a better transportation corridor.

As I have noted elsewhere, the MAC zone is far too long to expect most people to traverse it on foot (Post #302).  Maybe we should concentrate instead on setting up these new broad sidewalks so that they may be safely shared by pedestrians and “personal mobility devices”.  With the idea that, maybe, at some point in the far future, you’ll have a significant population of persons traversing Maple by ebike, electric scooter, Segway, or whatnot.

To a large degree, of course, that’s a fantasy.  Right now, during rush hour, the Town’s traffic counts show that 99% of what travels down Maple is cars and trucks.

And until you do the entire length of Maple, this idea breaks down every time you revert to the existing 5′ concrete ribbon sidewalk.  (And the only way I see around that is both horrendously expensive and not very good looking.  If you are going to put the utilities underground, then you could, at that time, replace the existing 6′  grass buffer strip with a 4′ mobility device (“bike”) lane and low concrete bollards/low hedges.  That would let you get down … most of the length of Maple.   By eye, every place other than the historic mattress district.  But at an astronomical cost, due to the high cost of putting the utilities underground (Post #210).

That said, using the broad sidewalk to include some path for mobility devices (e.g., bikes) would, in my opinion, by no more a waste of space than setting them up to accommodate streetside dining.  This way, at least, you’ve put down a bet for growth in “other than car” transport along Maple.  And in hindsight, that may turn out to be a very bad bet.  But, to me, it’s no worse than betting that Maple will somehow eventually be a pleasant spot for outdoor dining.