Arlington's Abram Street: Catalyst for Downtown Transformation or Just Another STROAD
VERDUNITY sponsored a series of Curbside Chats with Charles Marohn from Strong Towns last February. The staff from Downtown Arlington Management Corporation (DAMC) were one of the first to respond when we put our first call out to see what communities or organizations might be interested in hosting an evening with Chuck. Tony Rutigliano and Bob Johnson brought up Abram Street, an existing five-lane STROAD through the city's core where there has been a bit of a tug-of-war happening with respect to designing the key corridor for moving traffic or making it more accessible for pedestrians and cyclists. They felt that bringing Chuck in to talk would give City staff, elected officials, citizens, and local business owners some additional information to consider as the project enters the alternative analysis and design stages. Quotes and video excerpts from Chuck's presentation in Arlington can be viewed here.
Prior to the meeting that evening, a group of us from VERDUNITY and Strong Towns walked Abram Street with Tony and Alex from DAMC. Tony explained DAMC's vision of making Abram a pedestrian-focused corridor, as well as some of the challenges, such as accommodating high traffic volumes and helping struggling local businesses along the corridor. Our team made several observations (some of which Chuck mentioned in his presentation), and discussed some ideas. We all agreed that Abram has great potential.
Here are some of our completely unsolicited, unfiltered thoughts about Abram Street:
Where is "Downtown Arlington?"
Before we get into specifics for Abram Street itself, let's zoom out a bit and talk briefly about "downtown" Arlington. When you ask people if they've been to downtown Arlington, you will get responses ranging from "oh yeah, I go to Cowboys games all the time" to "where is downtown?" and everything in between. What is now the University of Texas at Arlington was initially established as Arlington College back in 1852. The college grew and evolved into an educational leader in the region that is home to over 38,000 students. About 6,000 of those live on campus, which is located just two blocks south of Abram Street, and roughly another 10,000 live within five miles of campus. City Hall, the City's main public library, Founder's Plaza/Levitt Pavilion and a series of businesses and restaurants are all located along a short stretch of the Abram Street corridor itself. There is also a nice section of Main Street one block north of Abram that has more of a traditional downtown feel to it. An interactive map of the area can be found here.
The City has invested tremendous resources in wooing both the Texas Rangers and the Dallas Cowboys to Arlington. They've played host to a World Series, a SuperBowl and most recently, the Final Four, all of which fixed millions of eyes and billions of dollars on Arlington and the DFW region. Six Flags over Texas is also located in the immediate vicinity. Arlington has some great destination points that could be considered part of a core downtown, and even bigger assets with the stadiums that could expand that into a metro-scale downtown. Right now there is not a clear downtown district nor a core that is branded in a way people from Arlington and the north Texas region identify with. It's a little bit of small town USA meshed with the big city.
There has been a lot of talk about establishing or revitalizing downtown Arlington. It appears that there is some inconsistency with respect to the definition of downtown, and actions are not consistently lining up with words. We believe that the conversation must be laser-focused on creating pedestrian-friendly places where people can get out of their cars, walk around and experience the sights, sounds and smells of a downtown. My colleague Don Raines pointed out during our walking tour that people don't spend money by holding their credit card out the window of their car. They have to get out of their cars and physically walk up or sit down at an establishment to make a purchase. Once someone gets out of their car, they need visual clues and a surrounding environment that helps them locate and safely navigate their way to various destinations.
Right now, the various destinations mentioned above are spread out, surrounding by gigantic parking lots and connected by a series of multi-lane STROADs that move lots of cars in, out and around the area at speeds unsafe for pedestrians. Lots of cars are driving by the local businesses and seeing their signs, but not many people are actually stopping and shopping. There's some basic signage around the stadiums geared toward getting cars to the appropriate parking lots, but these various destinations aren't connected with any sort of pedestrian scale branding or wayfinding. The students, workers and residents who do want to walk or bike somewhere in the area today must do so with cars driving by at speeds well over those that are safe for pedestrians. Downtown Arlington is all about cars in its current form. Abram Street is the perfect project to change that.
Connecting all of these assets together and filling in areas with more dense and pedestrian-focused development will undoubtedly take time, but the Abram Street corridor presents an opportunity for the City to fully commit to the vision of creating a vibrant and fiscally productive downtown core by putting people first.
Going "All In" Right Now
The Abram corridor needs to be converted into a "pedestrian first" environment if the City wants to expedite the creation of a true downtown. Instead of a "through-fare," it should be a "to-fare". In an ideal scenario Abram Street through the core district (yellow in the image above) would be reduced to one lane of traffic in each direction, providing more space to extend sidewalks and add bike lanes. People (and especially traffic engineers) will argue that there are too many cars on Abram for two lanes to accommodate, but several corridors to the north and south of Abram present opportunities to accommodate vehicular traffic moving eastbound and westbound. If you design for cars, there will be more and more cars. If you commit to designing for pedestrians, then the number of cars and how they move around will change. The same area shown in the existing photo above could look something like this.
Dipping a Toe in the Water
Cities and stakeholders are often hesitant to support a transformation as significant as that proposed above. A more flexible design can be implemented in that case; one that accommodates more of the vehicular needs of today, but with minimal additional investment can be transformed over time. Perhaps you could have two lanes of traffic going westbound, one lane eastbound, and an outer lane on the south side that can either be used as another travel lane, or during events and other times, used to test out various concepts like on-street or angled parking, bike lanes, etc. This option could look something like this:
As traffic adjusts over time and pedestrian activity in the area grows, the lane could be converted into something more permanent like angled parking as shown below. This same approach could be applied on the north side as well.
Connecting Pedestrians Together
One of the other things we noted during our walking tour was that there was not a clear pedestrian connection from the UTA campus up to Abram or Main Street. In order for Abram Street to reach its full potential as a walkable, fiscally productive corridor, UTA students and faculty need to be able to safely and easily walk or bike to the restaurants and businesses on Abram. Pecan Street (shown in orange in the aerial map above) presents the best opportunity to make this connection. This stretch of Pecan connects the end of the traditional section of Main Street to the north, with a fairly new mixed-use complex on the north side of the UTA campus. As you walk from north to south along Pecan, you pass City Hall and the Founder's Plaza/Levitt Pavilion (NE and SE corners of Pecan and Abram, respectively) and the Meredith Memorial Library, which is part of the First Baptist Church. Each of these destinations will attract unique groups of people that with the proper connections and wayfinding would be much more likely to hang out in the area for longer periods of time. It's not too much of a stretch to think someone might go to class at UTA in the morning, do some reading or classwork outside at the Founder's Plaza, and then end up at a restaurant/bar on Abram for happy hour with some friends.
The Abram and Pecan intersection is critical to this concept. Pedestrians need to feel like they have the right-of-way and priority when crossing Abram. This would be most easily accomplished if/when Abram is reduced to one lane in each direction, but here's a rendering of what it could look like with two westbound lanes, one eastbound lane, and the two-way bike lane. City Hall is on the left, and the Founder's Plaza/Levitt Pavilion is on the right. The signals are there now, but ideally, those would be replaced with stop signs or completely removed for the blocks in the core pedestrian district so you get slow, consistent movement of cars through the corridor.
It's Ultimately About Dollars and Long-Term Fiscal Resiliency
Arlington is not alone. Many other cities in north Texas and across the country are faced with similar challenges and face pressure to continue doing things the same way because that is what people know and expect. But evidence is starting to emerge that the vehicular-centric development approach has fiscal and environmental consequences. These are not readily apparent in the near term, but as Chuck Marohn's presentation shows, the costs add up over time. The fiscal reality is that if communities like Arlington want to be able to sustain the sprawling, single-family residential neighborhoods that a significant group of people enjoy and want to keep, it is imperative that they also have areas that generate a much higher financial return so they have the revenue to maintain all of the City's infrastructure over time.
Downtown areas and walkable places are the ones that citizens can connect with, and ultimately where memorable experiences are created. It is these types of memories that keep people coming back, get them bragging about their community, and that generate that extra buzz that makes a city a "best place to live, work, play, and learn."
These are all just ideas at this point, but our goal with this post was to demonstrate that there are plenty of ways to transform the corridor. We believe that Arlington should seize this great opportunity to spark new activity in its core and begin creating a downtown that people can associate with. Let the cars go somewhere else. If a vibrant and fiscally productive downtown is going to happen in Arlington then the vision for a new Abram Street must be focused on pedestrians. We'd love to see the City go all-in and make it a two-lane street with bike lanes and wide sidewalks. We'd settle for a flexible approach that starts by reducing lanes to three plus an experimental lane, and then using that lane to test out small, low-cost options until mobility patterns adjust and you find the right mix. Don't settle for less than that if you're a citizen or business who plans to move to or stay in Arlington.