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VOL. 132 | NO. 130 | Friday, June 30, 2017

‘Great Streets’ Experiment Opens Between River and FedExForum

By Bill Dries

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Scott Fox locks up his bicycle near the Great Streets Kick-Off Party Tuesday on South Main Street and Peabody Place. The pilot project will create a more-protected bike route Downtown. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

The sun umbrellas are on the way for the tables and chairs on the northern side of Peabody Place between Front and Main streets, and so is a temporary mural wall and some kiosks for a marketplace.

A Times Square-meets-Broad Avenue experiment at the southern end of Downtown’s Main Street Mall got underway this week with reggae music, popsicles and, of course, bicycles.

Most of that activity was on the last block of the 40-year-old Main Street Mall, but some of it also turned the corner onto Peabody Place.

Angled parking spaces have given way to parallel parking to make room for the tables and chairs. It’s all part of the Great Streets Pilot Project, a larger, yearlong test of a more defined and sheltered bicycle and pedestrian path between the riverfront and FedExForum to the east.

“What we are really hoping to do is test a lot of ideas that can be replicated in other areas,” said city chief operating officer Doug McGowen. “There are so many ideas tied in here that it gives us a sense of what we might be able to pilot in other areas. This really is a test bed.”

The changes include more noticeable street crossings and painted areas at corners that extend into the intersection to slow auto traffic and encourage those on foot and bike.

The streetscape changes are being funded by Hyde Family Foundations, Ikea, UrbanArt Commission, Looney Ricks Kiss and DCA.

City Bikeway and Pedestrian Coordinator Nicholas Oyler says if the next year sees the areas used, it will become permanent.

Attendees at Tuesday’s Great Streets Kick-Off Party play yard games on South Main Street to celebrate the start of the yearlong pilot project, which aims to transform a handful of Downtown streets into pedestrian- and bike-friendly public space. (Daily News/Houston Cofield)

“That means coming back and widening the sidewalk, putting in shade trees, making it truly a permanent fixture in Downtown,” he said.

Ikea is providing the sun umbrellas. EPIcenter, the entrepreneurial startup organization, is helping with the kiosks and the merchants manning them.

The UrbanArt Commission is providing the mural wall to “bring artists into this conversation and to help realize a radically different public space,” said UrbanArt director Lauren Kennedy.

Oyler agrees with the concept.

“If you take our collective network of streets, they are 3 1/2 times the size of Shelby Farms Park,” he said. “Our streets are the only public space that connects every neighborhood in the city. Our streets are the only other space that without exception you use every single day of your life. No other space is that far-reaching.”

Oyler also said the various changes are a potential link to Midtown.

“On MLK Avenue in the fall we are installing protected bike lanes for about two miles stretching all the way to Midtown,” he said.

At the Tuesday, June 27, kickoff, Oyler told a crowd of office workers getting off work, Downtown residents and tourists, including bikeway and pedestrian coordinators from across North America that are meeting in Memphis this week, to make good use of the corridor.

“If you like it – if you love it – you’ve got to use it,” he said.

McGowen said the changes are “an intersection between commerce and transportation and human interaction.”

The south end of the mall serves as a visible case for that intersection of uses. When the mall was created in the mid-1970s, the block between Gayoso and what was then McCall had winding brickwork that marked the way for pedestrians but big enough for cars, with a slope up to sidewalks. City planners initially forgot that the block was part of the mall and permitted auto traffic along it until they were reminded of it.

The winding pathway, like the problematic fountains spread along the mall that had an early tendency to leak into basements, eventually gave way to trolley tracks in the mid-1990s. Just north of Tuesday’s kickoff party, portions of the tracks were blocked by yellow tape as some renovation work is underway to prepare for a return of the trolleys.

“We’ve got a highly pedestrianized locale, but we didn’t really design for pedestrians,” McGowen said of the southern end of the mall.

“Streets back in their origin were for everybody. They were for people and horses and wagons. We made accommodations for cars and as we got into an auto-dominated society we kind of forgot that there were people who walked up and own them,” he said. “The interface between humans and the streets and the buildings could be a little better than it is today, better than a place to cross.”

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