Making Great Places

Making Great Places: Design Considerations
Michelle Bennett, AICP
Christy Summers, PLA
Beckett & Raeder, Inc.

While patrons cannot always pinpoint exactly what makes a downtown great, they can instantly recognize one when they see it. A downtown’s attractiveness is one side of the equation for success that must be balanced by a healthy mix of retail, services, and entertainment—but as the only element directly under the control of the DDA, design of the public realm should occupy considerable weight on the “to do” list. Often considered the impetus for inspiring private investment, public investment in the streetscape is a common precedent for transformative change. How to beautify a downtown is conceptually simple but more difficult to pull off in practice. Below are examples of successfully implemented projects and the processes that Beckett & Raeder underwent when collaborating on downtown revitalization projects.

Align streetscaping projects with Capital Improvement Projects

In the city of Jackson, the adopted capital improvement program called for ripping up the streets downtown to replace 100-year-old pipes. The city’s leadership decided to take advantage of this time to layer infrastructure above and below grade to make the downtown more beautiful and functional. The timing is a crucial component of this process. Jackson had to plan and design a Streetscape Master Plan to replace the formerly car-dominated corridor with greener, pedestrian-friendly features so that it aligned the implementation of capital projects. The planning for corridor improvements must be initiated several months—if not years—before the roads are scheduled for repair to allow adequate time to build a vision with the DDA, share a conceptual design with business owners and the community, and refine the concept for construction.
Effect: By completing both projects at once, the city saves money in the long run and reduces the length of disruption to existing businesses. The investments made by the City will help offset future capital costs because the project was planned and executed with quality and longevity in mind.

Plan for a timeline that includes extensive public engagement and education

During the planning process, concerns and objections are to be expected from the public. Where public comments are used as further lines of inquiry into the process and as opportunities for extensive education, projects tend to fare better. For example, in Grandville, when Beckett & Raeder recommended reducing a four-lane trunkline to three lanes, there was substantial public concern about traffic flow. The Landscape Architects in charge led a multi-disciplinary team to assemble extensive precedent and site-specific data to support road diet recommendations and anticipated economic development benefits. This educational process took four years of gathering and presenting data to make stakeholders comfortable with the idea, but advocacy and persistence won and the necessary approvals to be implemented were granted.
Effect: Two years after project completion, Chicago Drive in Grandville is a three-lane street with lower vehicular speeds, on-street parking, wider sidewalks, bicycle facilities, buried utilities, substantial pedestrian traffic, and zero commercial vacancy. Success of the project’s public investment has stimulated private investments such as infill development, building renovations, and façade improvements. The sum of these results is that downtown has now returned to its historic function as the social, commercial, and economic center of the community.

Pair good design principles with consistent programming

Good design recommendations address clearly stated problems. The Jackson Streetscape Master Plan’s success began with a shared understanding of the downtown as unsafe and lackluster. To start with safety, the plan demoted the car on the vehicular hierarchy so that passers-by could stroll leisurely without fear of a collision. In addition to installing bump-outs both mid-block and at intersections, two tabletop crosswalks were added. A tabletop crosswalk allows a pedestrian to cross the street without having to step down from the curb. The tabletop physically and symbolically elevates the pedestrian’s status on the street as they are now on the same level as the vehicle. The crosswalk also now serves as a speed bump so that cars must reduce their speed to a crawl to give way to pedestrians, who are now protected by infrastructure. The plan included “greening” the streetscape by increasing foliage in the newly created planter spaces and expanded tree canopy coverage to protect visitors from the elements and create a sense of “enclosure” or buffer from moving vehicles.
In addition to wanting to feel safer downtown, residents needed a reason to go there. Narrowed streets and widened sidewalks were a boon for shoppers and business owners alike, and in this case, did not come at the cost of reducing parking. The additional sidewalk space gave restaurants and retailers more space for outdoor dining, sales, and programming that generated higher foot traffic. Working in tandem with streetscape programming was the recently installed Blackman Park within the downtown core. The Streetscape Master Plan linked the park to the downtown corridor through improved nonmotorized paths. The park’s movie nights, car shows, symphony, and food trucks became a family-friendly attraction that drew people to the action that had been missing for decades.
Effect: The enhanced public realm created an influx of patrons in a previously deserted downtown, and new businesses formed along the Blackman Park and in the downtown core.

Overlooked Investments for the Public Realm

Lighting. Yes, it is expensive. But if done correctly, a well-lit downtown offers a “second shift” to serve residents. Evenly lit corridors provide nighttime appeal so that patrons could be enticed to stay longer for the ambiance and feel safer while doing so.
Sign blight. Signs can reinforce downtown character, but when there is little uniformity, sign blight can occur. Start with looking at the scale of signs and adjust sign requirements so that they can be seen by those traveling past them but do not overwhelm the landscape.
Tree canopy. Plan for trees so that when they reach maturity in height and diameter, they are fulfilling their purpose: shade, buffer from vehicles, stormwater capture, and beauty. They should be carefully spaced and their shape at maturity considered so that they fit into the space provided in your streetscape. Tree species are not interchangeable, so it is a mistake to treat them as such: downtown environments place considerable demand on trees, and it is important to know which ones are capable of serving them.