Monday, January 30, 2006

Square Dance

Marcus Rauterkus linked a few days back to this article by Patricia Lowry on the Mayor's proposal to turn Market Square into more "open space". From the article:

Earlier this month, in one of his first volleys as mayor, Bob O'Connor said that Downtown doesn't have enough parks and green space. He wants to create more for the many new residents it will be getting when about 3,000 apartments and condominiums are built Downtown over the next few years. For one thing, O'Connor wants to eliminate the crossroads through Market Square -- Market Street and Forbes Avenue -- and turn its four quadrants into a small park....

O'Connor is right, though, in suggesting that buses be rerouted out of Market Square. With brick and Belgian block streets and lined mostly with historic and low-rise buildings, the square has a relaxed, pedestrian feel -- until a bus bears down on you, catching you unawares. Removing them would go a long way in improving the ambience and air quality.

But O'Connor also wants to close to vehicles McMasters Way and Graeme Street, which connect Fifth Avenue with the square, and eliminate Market Street and Forbes Avenue through the square. It's almost never a good idea to close streets to cars where businesses are located, as the failed pedestrian malls of the 1960s in East Liberty, on the North Side and in many other American cities proved. Cars bring people, and people bring their shopping dollars and watchful eyes to the street. Closing Forbes through the square would have the domino effect of turning the blocks adjacent to it, between Stanwix and the square and between Wood and the square, into dead-end streets, making travel by car there difficult and jeopardizing those businesses as well.

And what, really, would be gained by turning Market Square into a grassy park? It already provides shade trees, a stage and plenty of seating, thanks to the low granite walls that surround three of the four quadrants. Most people don't sit on grass, but it does provide comfortable bedding for vagrants and the homeless, as the edges of Point State Park attest...
The same thought had been running through my mind when I heard the proposal. Unfortunately, I, being the social butterfly that I am, had no time to comment before my thunder was stolen by Ms. Lowry. But, whatever, I mean, she's getting paid, and I'm not... yet.

My initial reaction was exactly which streets were going to be closed. Clearly if vehicular traffic is to be closed to the entire square, you're going to have great difficulty with the block of Forbes between Wood and Market, and the block from Market to Stanwix. This would create a "dead area," like the fantastically successful East Liberty Mall. Moreover, if you are hoping to, say, bring in commercial establishments to the area, you're going to need some sort of loading/unloading area. That's not very easy if all the access points are cut off.

I agree with Ms. Lowry on the bus issue, although I must say it's really, really cool to walk to the front of the bus while you're traversing the square; the experience is like an old funhouse ride. What can I say? I get my kicks when I can.

If there has to be any road closures, I would suggest it should be the streets within Market Place, diversion of any trucks and busses, with the exception of local deliveries, away from the Square, allowing a bit more pedestrian friendly area in the middle. Local traffic can be diverted around Market Place, not through the Square.

That's a compromise thought, however. I really see no real reason to change it.

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