Design specialists look at downtown and come up with an eclectic mix of bright ideas

By BRUCE ALSOBROOK | News-Telegram Managing Editor

Aug 31, 2007 - Here's an idea: Make downtown look less like a suburban freeway and more like, well, a downtown.

One concept of how Main Street could look. Note the awnings and trees, designed to make the street cooler, even in Texas’ notorious summer heat.

That, in nutshell, is one of the ideas community planning specialists Ian Lockwood and Raj Mohabeer presented to a packed house at City Hall Thursday night.

As Lockwood and City Manager Marc Maxwell consistently reiterated through the night, these are just ideas, not plans.

But oh, what ideas they are.

Lockwood and Mohabeer, who work with a firm based in Orlando, Fla., that specializes in designing public spaces, came up with their recommendations after a three-day visit to the city. They presented their thoughts to a crowd of about 50 people Thursday night.

"I ask you to keep an open mind," Maxwell said when introducing Lockwood and Mohabeer. "Nobody is married to any ideas or any element of any plan."

Lockwood, by definition, is a traffic engineer, "but not in the typical sense," Maxwell said. While most traffic engineers are tasked with figuring out how to move vehicles as fast as possible through an area, Lockwood studied "traffic calming" in graduate school, looking at the more human side of transportation.

In a presentation lasting 90 minutes, Lockwood outlined dozens of ideas to make downtown more attractive to visitors, pedestrians, families, shoppers and businesses. Taken as a whole, it's a grand scheme — yet each element is very basic, such as planting trees, using stop signs instead of traffic lights, and improving sight lines to iconic buildings.

Ian Lockwood and Raj Mohabeer’s rough sketch for downtown, which used many elements of a plan drawn up for a new veterans memorial. Some of the ideas suggested Thursday night for downtown include two-way streets, different road surfaces and other elements to make the area friendlier to pedestrians.

"We don't expect you to accept them all," he said. "The point is to get the ball rolling."

After Lockwood presented a short course in the basics of city and community planning and design, he presented some of the concepts for Main Street, which he described as "a jewel in the rough."

The ideas included a return to two-way traffic; tree-lined brick streets;  awnings and facade makeovers for aesthetic appeal; wider sidewalks; and stop signs to replace traffic lights.

All those ideas combine to make the street safer for pedestrians, Lockwood explained. The feel of the brick road and the presence of the trees don't just make it more appealing to the eye — it also creates the illusion of narrowing the street, making traffic slow down voluntarily.

Also, when utility work beneath the street is required, crews won't have to tear up and repair asphalt — they just pull up the bricks and put them back when done.

"Bulb-out" corners that allow pedestrians to be able to safely look past parked cars for traffic before crossing the street were also in the presentation, along with clearly marked crossing areas for foot traffic.

The awnings and shade will make the site cooler for pedestrians, as well. Wider sidewalks accommodate more seating, and allow businesses to put tables or displays to attract customers.

Sidewalks would be about 8 feet wide, with a "wet zone" — an area about 5 feet wide separating the street and sidewalks. Wet zones, in the example Lockhart gave, are where utility lines are located, and covered with bricks or brick pavers, allowing easy access to the utilities.

Taking out traffic lights means motorists won't feel the need to speed up to beat a red light, but also eliminates the boxes and controllers that have to be installed on the sidewalk.

Lockwood's ideas would not eliminate parallel parking, but would make the parking spaces bigger. 

He also presented a rought sketch of ideas for the downtown square using many of the elements presented in a plan for a veterans memorial presented 10 days ago.

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