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Downtown makeover

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Pedestrians cross Marquette near Civic Plaza. A city consultant recommends converting Marquette to a two-way street, which he says would slow traffic and make the street more friendly to pedestrians. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Pedestrians cross Marquette near Civic Plaza. A city consultant recommends converting Marquette to a two-way street, which he says would slow traffic and make the street more friendly to pedestrians. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

Jeff Speck spent hours looking at traffic counts and walking around Downtown Albuquerque this year.

Civic Plaza is way too big, he says, and so are the traffic lanes on some streets – overbuilt for the volume of cars that actually travel on them.

Downtown could do without 19 of its traffic lights, he said, which can be replaced by all-way stop signs. The one-way streets of Marquette and Tijeras, meanwhile, should be converted to allow traffic in both directions.

And the city shouldn’t let the fear of attracting homeless people scare it away from creating “green” space Downtown.

These are just some of the ideas Speck – a Washington, D.C.-based planner and designer – has for making Downtown a more “walkable” and bicycle-friendly environment. He evaluated the city’s core under a $50,000 contract paid for through the discretionary fund set aside for City Councilor Isaac Benton’s district.

Speck, a former director of design at the National Endowment for the Arts, is still compiling his final report, but he delivered a two-hour talk earlier this summer to planners, neighborhood leaders and others. The full report is expected next month.

Downtown could use some “green” space and similar urban amenities, Speck said, despite concerns about attracting homeless people.

“Any nice place you make, homeless people will come, and the way to get around that is just to have them outnumbered by” other people out walking, Speck said. “… The reason homelessness seems like such a problem here is because you have so few non-homeless people walking.”

He also contends that many Downtown streets have a lane or two more than necessary, given their traffic volume. The lanes are often too wide, as well, encouraging higher speeds, he said.

Urban Lofts faces west along Broadway near Downtown Albuquerque. A planning consultant has said the city should use every incentive available to attract housing Downtown. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Urban Lofts faces west along Broadway near Downtown Albuquerque. A planning consultant has said the city should use every incentive available to attract housing Downtown. (Albuquerque Journal File Photo)

Narrowing the lanes slightly and getting rid of the excess lanes would create more space for on-street parking and bicycle lanes – some of which can be “buffered,” a design in which parked cars are moved off the curb far enough to leave a path for cyclists. Under that system, parked cars serve as a buffer between the cyclists and moving cars.

Many of these changes can be carried out simply through re-striping, or “for the price of paint,” as Speck puts it. One recommendation he came back to over and over again – reduce the city’s standard 12-foot lanes to 10 feet, leaving more room for on-street parking or bike lanes and paths.

“This extra (lane) width does nothing except to encourage speeding,” he said. “It doesn’t improve the flow.”

Benton, whose district includes Downtown, said he likes that Speck’s recommendations don’t require tearing up curbs and doing expensive re-construction.

“Most of them are fairly simple and low-cost solutions,” Benton said. “… I’d be inclined to try to adopt some of these as a policy, not that we’re going to immediately do all of it this year – but over the long term, we adopt his recommendation as a policy for improving Downtown.”

Michael Riordan, Albuquerque’s director of municipal development, said the city will evaluate Speck’s recommendations carefully after the final report is issued. Some ideas, such as changing one-way streets to two-ways, could be challenging or expensive, he said. Others are easier to follow up on.

“We believe a lot of them have merit,” he said.

Other observations and recommendations from Speck:

  • Too many curbs are painted to prohibit on-street parallel parking. Pedestrians like having parked cars next to the sidewalk, he said, because they add a natural barrier between them and vehicle traffic.
  • Tijeras and Marquette can be converted to two-way streets. One-way roads encourage cars to jockey from lane to lane and pick up speed, he said.

“One-way streets feel much less safe to pedestrians because of that sheer momentum of all those cars in one direction,” Speck said.

  • Vehicle traffic is light enough along one section of Lomas – around the courthouses at Fourth Street – to reduce it from seven to five lanes. Adding on-street parking in the area would help protect people on the sidewalk.
  • Nineteen traffic signals aren’t warranted. Three- or four-way stop signs would save money, he said.
  • Civic Plaza is too big. It’s also isolated because the north and south edges are walled off from surrounding buildings. Speck recommends cutting it in half and offering some of the land to developers.

“No one uses it, for good reason,” he said of the current design. “… You might as well have had a subdivision gate around your plaza.”

  • Use every incentive available to attract housing Downtown. There are only 645 housing units on 313 acres Downtown, he said, a density more fit for “sprawl” subdivisions far from the city core.

“The more people you have living Downtown, the better your tax rolls are going to be,” Speck said. “… You’re just going to be much healthier financially.”

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