Don’t let the past arbitrarily limit our future

A friend of mine on a local planning council here in central Arkansas forwarded me an email thread this afternoon that’s been growing over the past couple of days. Apparently, some forward-thinking people in the group are envisioning a re-imagined President Clinton Avenue that some day could serve as a safe, attractive, business-friendly transit and pedestrian space in the River Market area free of today’s near-constant parade of cars driving back-and-forth, backing onto sidewalks while the drivers learn how to parallel park via trial-and-error, and gliding through crosswalks and stop signs without regard for the people on foot. Changing the current situation sounds like a compelling idea. Sounds like a conversation worth having. No doubt it would be a dramatic change requiring a lot of forethought and careful execution, but concrete steps could be taken now to move the area forward so that some day it would make perfect sense to all the stakeholders that accommodating people is more important than accommodating cars on that short stretch of street. 

Anyway, one naysayer’s contribution to the thread irked me a bit:
Some of you obviously don’t remember the disaster that was MetroCenter Mall. It was a huge mistake then to close off a street, and would be now.The drunks at the bars on Clinton Blvd would be happy right along with you though, so you have their vote. No disrespect to our European traveler, but this ain’t Europe, or even close. This town was laid out horrible from the start, and parking is NOT where it needs to be for even a large convention(Big Buck Classic). How about deliveries by truck down there? Its REALLY bad now, and with no other way to get goods, we are stuck with the trucks. It would be nice if everyone who worked downtown lived downtown, but until we get the thugs out of the River Market(just go down there anytime after 10pm at Main and Scott), that aint happening. Last time I checked, not alot of employers have showers at work so that employees can wash up before work after a small bike ride either. We have to deal with what is here and now, or the next group will take over what we have: Problems.

and prompted an admittedly feisty reaction from me…
1. MetroCenter Mall was an attempt to artificially inject life into a lifeless place. Closing Pres. Clinton Ave. to cars couldn’t be further from what the MCM was. There is amazing life in the River Market area now, but it’s being disrupted, choked, and limited by 4 lanes of cars (2 parked and 2 moving). If some people have to park on Capital Ave and walk 4 blocks, great! We need more eyes and activity on the street over there anyway, and the short walk would do everyone some good. 
2. “
This town was laid out horrible from the start…” First, I disagree. The horrible stuff didn’t happen until the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Second, if some bad decisions were made in the past, then why should that be a reason to continue making bad decisions today?
3. Perceived lack of access to the Big Buck Classic does not come from a parking problem, but from a mobility problem instead. If we turn everything into one big parking lot, then we eliminate the reasons people want to be downtown in the first place. Convention Centers (and arenas and tech parks and museums) are sold to the public as a way to enhance the day-to-day life of a city. It would be self-defeating to sacrifice that vitality just to make it easier for out-of-towners to park close to a boat show. Prioritize people instead of cars; watch tax revenues increase from greater commerce happening and from property values rising; and then we can start talking about investing in better transit connections between downtown LR and other parts of the region… maybe even to Conway, thus lessening the ‘need’ for more parking and more interstate lanes. 
4. Every car-free street I’ve ever seen has removable barriers or bollards at the ends that allow delivery trucks into the space. Some of them are even automatic so the drivers don’t have to get out. In fact, going car-free actually makes it easier for deliveries to be made, because there’s no traffic and no parked cars to maneuver around. 
5. People won’t live downtown “
until we get the thugs out of the River Market…” Tell that to the hundreds or thousands of people who do live downtown right now. High cost and lack of choice are probably the biggest limiters… not crime/safety. Our old-fashioned parking requirements that force any new building to have several stories of garage space sandwiched in between the ground floor and the residential floors drive the costs of projects up. It doesn’t take too much pencil pushing for a developer to conclude that luxury condos are the only way to go given the current zoning and parking code. Let’s change the parking minimums to parking maximums and see what happens. Also, homeless people are not ‘thugs.’ If someone feels like the concentration of homeless people is too high though, then instead of simplistically rounding them up and sending them somewhere else, why not figure out how to get more people on the street? Ten panhandlers on a sidewalk with 20 other people feels a lot different than ten panhandlers on a sidewalk with 200. ‘Getting them out’ doesn’t solve anything. 
6. Showers at work. Bring it on! Simply pointing out that we don’t have any showers today does absolutely nothing to change that fact for the future. Let’s reduce our car parking requirements for developers and replace them with some shower / bike parking / locker requirements for new and renovated buildings. It’d be cheaper and better for everyone in the long run. Problem solved. 
7. “
We have to deal with what is here and now, or the next group will take over what we have: problems.” EXACTLY! So, deal with it! Change it! Make it better! Throwing our hands up and doing nothing is the exact opposite of actually dealing with something.

What are your thoughts? Anyone remember the MetroCenter Mall? Has anyone been to lively, people-centric streets elsewhere that the River Market and Prez. Clinton Ave. could improve upon? What are the reasons people don’t live downtown?