Medians on Main Street

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walkers and a skateboarder safely crossing sun-drenched and palm-lined stretch of Washington Avenue on South Beach


   Medians are a terrible idea on Main Street because they don't let you turn into a business across the street, right? Not so fast… It turns out that the best Main Streets are those with parking continuous along the street, wide sidewalks to accomodate vibrant street life, and no parking lot entrances. If there are parking lots, they should be in the middle of the block, accessible from the alley. As we discussed in the Walk Appeal series, the worst thing you could possibly do is to put a parking lot right behind the sidewalk. Even a driveway to a parking lot in the middle of the block is a tremendous disruption to walking because it's a place you could get run over by a car entering the street with limited sight distance if you're walking down the sidewalk.

   We talked about the Alton Road battle on South Beach recently, and amazingly, the DOT ended up agreeing in the end to do what the Flamingo Park neighborhood asked for. But now there are special interests weighing in, many of whom never showed up at the years of meetings while the design was being hammered out, and they threaten to wreck the entire agreement. One is a small but loud bike lobby, but that's a story for another day. Let's talk instead about the anti-median guys. 

vibrant crowd enjoying afternoon stroll along the broad sidewalks of Washington Avenue on South Beach

   The final DOT design was largely patterned from lessons learned on Washington Avenue, which is just a few blocks away and pictured above. It is a vibrant commercial street, with street life that most of Alton Road could only dream of. The tree-filled median does several good things, including slowing down the heavy traffic, shading and therefore cooling the street, creating street proportions that are more than twice as good, providing a place of refuge in the middle to people crossing the street, and inserting lush planting material in what would otherwise be a broad river of asphalt. Medians enhance Walk Appeal, which is the best predictor of survival and success of neighborhood businesses. And Walk Appeal is what creates scenes like this, with sidewalks filled with people out enjoying the day (and who are likely shopping in the stores along the way). All of this means that the new Alton Road design is much better than what currently exists.

lone woman surrounded by speeding traffic as she attempts to cross treacherous stretch of Alton Road on South Beach

   Today, much of Alton Road is downright scary. The lanes are much too wide and fast, so you're taking your life in your own hands if you try to get across. The new design, while unfortunately leaving the design speed too high, will nonetheless markedly improve the likelihood that you can walk or bike on the new Alton Road and return home unscathed. And for a place like South Beach where almost half of the residents don't even own a car (because the rest of South Beach is so walkable) that's a really big deal.

people enjoying a South Beach afternoon along palm-lined stretch of Alton Road

   This is also a tale of two Alton Roads. The North end was built mostly according to the old South Beach pattern with buildings pulled right up to the sidewalk like they do on good Main Streets. I call this "Good Alton." It is here that you can find people on the streets, out enjoying themselves much as they do on Washington, even if there are somewhat fewer of them. Most of the buildings along Good Alton don't need major surgery, but rather a nip or a tuck here or there. The streetscape is similar, with relatively wide sidewalks and palm trees along the street, sheltering the sidewalks to the point that you'll find street cafes scattered along the way. Because Good Alton is as healthy as it is, it's the part of Alton Road where it's most important to keep the details good and really get stuff right. There is a group of merchants on Good Alton who are opposing the median. They're in the building with the parking lot out front that you see here:

satellite photo of Alton Road intersections

   They have a curb cut on Alton, but as you can see, it lines up almost perfectly with 15th Terrace. And they're on a really long block that's over twice as long as Portland's great blocks, so there really should be a break in the median at 15th Terrace, treating this like the two blocks it is on the West side rather than the one block it is on the East side. Eventually, if the city enacts a SmartCode, the building owner(s) will have the incentive to do a more profitable building that pulls right up to the sidewalk rather than having the regrettable parking lot in front. But for now, break the median there and don't lose the Walk Appeal of the new streetscape.

deserted stretch of Alton Road just north of 5th Street on South Beach

   Further South, the situation on much of Alton is bleak. Parking lots to the left and right, curb cuts all along the way, and a flyover that dumps out right down the middle make "Bad Alton" a place where you rarely see anyone walking. Landowners just north of 5th Street represent the bulk of the opposition to the median, I'm told. But without a SmartCode and a lot of major surgery, there's little hope that the last couple blocks of Alton north of 5th are going to be places anyone wants to be anyway, so eliminating the median there won't hurt anyone since nobody's there.

   Just don't screw up all of Alton Road because of one stretch that doesn't matter today and another single instance where the median should be broken anyway. Let's get the bulk of Alton right… not only for the neighbors, but for all of South Beach!


   ~Steve Mouzon

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