3.26.2012

Intersection Disaffection

This week I'm being critical and offering a challenge. The winner(s) shall receive a prize. Details are at the end.

I had a difficult time deciding what to write about this week. I didn’t really want to write about 27 again and nothing else leapt to mind. I settled on another in the “My Favorite” series. To this point I’ve done a favorite building and favorite block. So what’s next? Why not a favorite intersection? Sorting through my mental map of good intersections, I couldn’t come up with one that stood out- all of the potential candidates had hair on them. Since my mind was failing me, I decided to consult the map. What I found was surprising indeed. My mind had not failed me- all of our intersections have something wrong with them. There is no great intersection in downtown.

The traffic engineers will take exception to that comment. They will roll out some adt’s, turning movement stats, signal timing info, assess the sight triangle and tell us that most of our intersections are just fine. While traffic is a consideration, it is only one of a number of factors that contribute to the overall quality of an intersection. So, as usual, we will look beyond purely automobile-related concerns.

The primary criteria that I’m using to assess the quality of downtown intersections are: 
the presence of  development on the corners, buildings that define the public realm, a mixture of uses that encourage 18-hour activity, the quality of the pedestrian environment, and the pedestrian friendliness of the street crossings. The next cut of consideration includes: the amount of human activity and elements that add to the “ambiance” of the place- street furniture, plantings, unique architecture/uses, etc.

The intersection of two paths creates a place, a focus, a singular point in space. Historically, the intersections of paths (primarily trade routes) led to the establishment of posts that later developed into towns and cities.  The preferred form of the American downtown, the grid, by its nature embraces the importance of the intersection. You could say that it embodies our democratic and capitalistic nature. A corner position is a privileged location- it allows for maximum visibility of the site, improves access to light, creates greater frontage for signage and marketing, provides more flexibility in locating entrances and makes delivery and service easier. So as much as we focus on the quality of the street and street edge, we should be giving equal or greater focus to the quality of how our streets intersect.

I don’t have enough space to give a full analysis of each intersection downtown, but here are some notes on a fair few... (All of the comments below are made in the context of how each element helps or hinders the intersection- don’t get your knickers in a twist if you don’t agree)

Market Street Intersections:

Main- This site has potential, but it has a vacant (for now) corner and the building that the Hair Lounge occupies does not live up to the promise of it's site.

King/13th- Boasts the best restaurants in the city and some housing, but also has a number of parking lots.

1tth- A parking lot, a sterile “plaza”, and a blank building face undo the potential of Patten Tower and Pickle Barrel.

MLKing- This is one of the most important intersections in our town. A parking lot, a weak interface with the Park, and less than ideal quality of the pedestrian crossings are undermining the potential.

8th – Close, but no cigar. The form is just about there, the street crossings are fine, and there is nice tree canopy. However, from a use and activity standpoint, it lacks: all 9-5, mostly banks.

7th- See 8th.

4th- Very important intersection. From an activity standpoint it’s great (with the exception of the northwest corner). The pedestrian crossings aren’t great. The killer is the scale of the corner buildings. For as long as they exist, the single story buildings destroy any sense of comfortable scale. Each of those corners probably need 3-story buildings- even the 2-story Hair of the Dog is a bit short.

2nd – The two parking lots on the west kill it. it is fairly animated and has decent form on the east.

Frazier/Cherokee – Arguably the most important intersection on the North Shore. Could have been great, but Walgreen’s shit the bed.

Broad Street intersections:

Main – You could argue that this intersection comprises four parking lots. No scale.

13th – One good corner, but two parking lots and an impermeable building corner don’t contribute.

Houston – Stroud’s is ok, but the Urban Dam may be the worst building in all of downtown (yes, worse than Buffalo Wild Wings, Chili’s or Applebee’s)

11th- Snooze, no activity. One parking lot, one bad “plaza” and two 9-5 uses.

MLKing- The intersection has most of the elements, the scale is ok (Krystal Building is not great), nice tree canopy, decent pedestrian crossing. The missing element is activity- only one of the corners (Read House) really supports pedestrian activity beyond 9-5.

8th- Not bad, the corners are developed and there is a decent pedestrian quality. However, the uses only go 9-5 and don’t have the energy to forge an intersection identity. One of the problems with Broad St intersections is that Broad Street is …broad. The closer the corners are, the easier it is to create a sense of place, the farther apart, the greater the challenge…as evidenced here.

7th – Good form, no activity.

4th – Another of the most important intersections in the city: one parking lot, one good building, one parking lot/dumpster area, one loading dock. The city deserves better.

3rd- South side of the intersection is nice. On the north- one Surface lot, one impermeable parking structure.

2nd- 1 really good corner. Three parking lots.

Miscellaneous Intersections of Note:


Chestnut & 2nd- Three of four ain’t bad- but I wouldn’t say it's good.

Chestnut & 3rd- Three of four corners turn their backs (or are indifferent) to the intersection.

Chestnut & 4th- Traffic really kills the pedestrian environment, and thereby the intersection. The parking lot, and office building don’t help.

Chestnut & MLKing – North side is good. The one-story City Café Diner does not help.

Courthouse Square- Potential, but the gas station and “Plaza” of UNUM kill it.

Manufacturers and Cherokee- A nice intersection, fairly well scaled- but the BDC doesn't animate the corner, and the undeveloped parcel is a wildcard.

Tremont and Frazier – great potential, but the SE corner is underdeveloped and the building on the north east needs to open to the intersection.

Main and Williams- has some potential- I guess it depends on what happens with Clyde’s and the  parking lot.

So here is the challenge: If you can make the argument that we have a single great intersection in downtown, I'll buy you a drink and post your argument. Have at it….

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