Street, Sidewalk Enhancements Proposed for Downtown Cedar Rapids

By Rick Smith, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The City Council has been talking for a few years now about turning Second through Fifth avenues SE in the core of the downtown into two-way streets.

The thought behind the talk is to turn the downtown into a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day neighborhood to use and spend time in and not rush into and then flee once the workday is done.

The latest plan discussed this week by two council committees calls for "right-sizing" the wide, multilane, one-way avenues into two-way streets with one lane of traffic in each direction with some left-turning lanes at some intersections. Most of the existing extra width of the avenues then would feature parking on both sides of the street, including some angle parking, plus designated on-street bike lanes.

Consultant Jeff Speck, Speck & Associates of Washington, D.C., recommended, too, that the city paint bike lanes a color such as green to make "a powerful, political statement" that the city is promoting a bicycling culture.

Speck also called on the city to lobby the Iowa Department of Transportation, which dictates standards for First Avenue, a federal highway, to reduce the width of travel lanes on the street to enable room on the main arterial for a designated bike lane as well.

Perhaps most revolutionary among Speck's proposals is this one: He wants to eliminate traffic lights in favor of four-way stops at many if not all the intersections between Second and Fifth avenues and First and Fifth streets SE in the downtown.

Savings, Speck said, from not having to purchase and install new traffic signals once the streets are turned from one-way to two-way traffic on Second through Fifth avenues would help the city pay for the cost of changing signals at the railroad crossings for two-way traffic at the railroad track that cuts through downtown. The cost to change the rail crossings, which has been estimated at $250,000 for each crossing, has prevented the council in recent years from pushing ahead with a plan to convert the one-way avenues to two-way ones.

Speck said doing away with most of the downtown traffic signals in favor of four-way stops would make for a "dramatic change" to the downtown. Such an arrangement favors pedestrians — "The pedestrian is king" in the setup, he said — and he said motorists will prefer it because they don't have to idle at traffic signals waiting for lights to change.

At the same time, Speck stressed to the council's Infrastructure Committee and Development Committee members that he is a planner, not a traffic engineer, and he said the city needs to conduct an inexpensive downtown traffic study to assess the wisdom of his recommendations from a traffic safety and traffic engineering perspective. Speck added that he hoped the study would be conducted by a forward-looking engineering firm, not one living in the past.

Speck, who is being paid $33,000 for his work with the city to help it with the downtown traffic plan as well as with new standards for streets citywide, also took aim at an existing $3.4-million proposal to redesign Third Street SE from the new convention complex at First Avenue East to the heart of New Bohemia at Third Street SE and 12th Avenue SE.

Speck said he would do away with an expensive piece of the current proposal that puts curves in Third Street SE. He said such an approach will kill the potential of the street if past experience in cities such as Baton Rouge, La., is any guide. Speck said the current proposal for Third Street SE — which has been tagged the Arts, Culture & Entertainment District or ACE — also removes too much on-street parking, which he said businesses along the street will want and need. Some parking spaces might be converted inexpensively to outdoor seating in season and converted back to parking at cooler times of the year, he added.

Tom Peterson, the city traffic engineer, and Christine Butterfield, the city's community development director, said the departments will continue to work with Speck to finalize street proposals for the City Council in the months to come.

Those proposals also will include a guidebook on how the city should approach street design citywide for a variety of street types. The city has embraced the idea of the "complete street" in recent years so street design is done with pedestrian, bicyclists and amenities such as trees and lighting factored into a design, not just motor vehicles.

Council member Monica Vernon, chairwoman of the Development Committee, said the council should help create a "rule book" so city staff members know what the council expects in its road and development projects.

Vernon said Speck is correct, for instance, when he says street trees need to stand between the street and sidewalk, and she said the city needed to make better choices in how it lights streets. She said lights on much of First Avenue were too high and so turned many areas into something akin to a "pro football (stadium) parking lot."

Council member Chuck Swore said some city streets are too dark, not too bright.

As for trees, council member Scott Olson asked Speck for some advice about the city's recent effort to plant trees along new and renovated streets where many of the trees have died.

Speck said studies show that spending money on planting and maintaining trees ends up raising property values in an area, which means additional tax revenue for the city.

"If you can't invest in what you plant, you're wasting your money," he added.
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