People-friendly communities require more than sidewalks
I was saddened by the death of the tourist hit by a car while crossing Horizon Drive last week. Welcome to Grand Junction.
Anyone who has walked or cycled along Horizon, Patterson, North Avenue, Broadway or 12th Street through Colorado Mesa University knows how scary it is to travel those corridors by any means other than by car — and even that’s risky, thanks to speeders, texters and multi-taskers.
We’re justifiably proud of our beautiful downtowns, but like most cities in the United States, our community’s designs favor automobile traffic over pedestrians and bicyclists.
The city of Grand Junction’s decision to purchase the burned-out White Hall building on the corner of Sixth Street and White Avenue is a prime example of commitment to the economic importance of a people-friendly downtown. Fruita and Palisade have nice, people-friendly downtowns too.
Last Sunday’s editorial in The Daily Sentinel supported the city’s decision. “It will either be an indication that people here don’t care about a dangerous, unattractive, charred shell remaining in the core of their city, or a representation of a community’s determination not to let the city deteriorate a little bit at a time,” the editors stated.
Our city centers are success stories. But what about derelict buildings and unsafe areas beyond downtown? Don’t they also merit our “community’s determination not to let the city deteriorate a little bit at a time”? Aren’t city council members elected from districts throughout the community?
We can’t all live and work downtown. We clearly need people-friendly development throughout the Grand Valley.
Walkable neighborhoods are vital, according to Christopher Leinberger of the Brookings Institute. He co-authored a study that shows a direct relationship between a neighborhood’s “walkability” and the value of its commercial and residential properties. Walkability doesn’t just mean there’s a sidewalk. It means safe distances from traffic and proximity to essentials and conveniences: grocery or produce markets, libraries, cafés, parks and other social gathering places.
“I would ride my bike more often if it wasn’t so scary on the streets,” said Sharon Sealy of Western Constructors. We were talking about the company’s mixed-use properties at First and Patterson, with an apartment complex, drugstore, and two restaurants. Western has also developed new handicap-accessible apartments on North Avenue.
According to a recent study by the national Center for Community Progress, municipalities have many opportunities to take advantage of the growing demand for walkable neighborhoods, including neighborhood stabilization teams. The study’s authors report that the teams “meet with individual neighborhood groups to identify destabilizing forces that may harm community assets and target limited resources near neighborhood anchors.”
After learning of the pedestrian fatality, I called on Justin Larson of Vaught Frye Larson Architects to talk about challenges and solutions to the problem. His firm has offices in Palisade, Fort Collins and Cheyenne. It’s done some amazing mixed-use (commercial and residential), people-friendly renovations and redevelopments beyond downtowns in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
“The biggest challenge is getting everyone to recognize the true cost when it comes to the value of walkable areas,” he explained, starting with traffic congestion and medical bills.
I asked him what, from an architect’s standpoint, it would take to support more people-friendly redevelopments in the Grand Valley.
“There needs to be renewed flexibility among the zoning jurisdictions; we need to take a different view of parking lots at abandoned properties that could be used to add smaller, complementary buildings for greater mixed-use opportunities; we need incentives to make these outlying areas more attractive for small businesses; and we need to remind citizens of the power of neighborhood voices when it comes to their needs,” Larson said. He added that zoning directors, architects and developers also “need to challenge one another while working together in finding solutions.”
He gave me quite an education about the complexities inherent in both the challenges and opportunities in revitalizing areas beyond our downtowns, including the population density requirements to make projects financially viable. “But there are many creative options that offer benefits not only for investors,” the architect said, “but for the community as a whole.”
Solutions can get complicated, he explained, with type of ownership, type of property, physical characteristics, geography, area demographics, traffic patterns and the legal status of a property all coming into play.
Bottom line? We could move away from one-size-fits-all programs and strategies, avoid quick-fix property transactions that offer little long-term benefit for the community and engage residents so our voices can be heard. We could encourage stronger collaborations among the private sector, government and civic leaders, community-based groups and citizens to make the Grand Valley even more people-friendly.
And on that note, I’m going for a brisk walk to the grocery store, which requires that I cross Horizon Drive. Wish me luck!