Transportation activists introduce new vision for a human-centered ‘living Plaza’ with fewer cars

Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union

ARCATA – Re-imagining the Plaza has never been more popular, with ideas flying at near-weekly scoping sessions in and out of government. The frequency of the solution-seeking is exceeded only by the daily incidents of drunks, drugs, fights, smoking and other offenses continuing to take place out on the troubled town square.

A new initiative goes beyond marking-penned wish lists scrawled on butcher paper with a consolidated set of specific proposals, and will likely be thrown into the mix of options to be considered at an upcoming, not-yet-scheduled City Council study session on Plaza issues.

CRTP’s vision

Picture a Plaza free of cars on Eighth and Ninth streets, the vehicles replaced by bistro dining. A playset full of squealing children is surrounded by picnicking parents noshing on items from an array of food carts. Musicians perform from a small stage, while a chess game is played on a giant board with fireplug-sized pieces. Tourists pluck brochures from an information kiosk, their visit untrammeled by day-campers of the smoking/yelling/fighting variety. Surrounding businesses are thriving with walk-in business, thanks to the restored popularity of the Arcata Plaza. 

Idyllic, yes, but achievable, according to the McKinleyville-based Coalition for Responsible Transportation Priorities (CRTP), representatives of which outlined their ideas Tuesday, Oct. 12 during a presentation in the Plaza View Room in Jacoby’s Storehouse.

Dubbed “Creating a Family-Friendly Plaza,” the briefing offered a data-driven vision of a redefined town square. The pillars of CRTP’s concept are comfort, activities, sociability and accessibility, all of which add up to a “Living Plaza.”

The theory is that, infused with new life thanks to reduction of car dominance and addition of socially stimulating amenities, the troubled town square would be more self-regulating in terms of behavior.

Ryan Campbell

The presentation was led by Ryan Campbell, Arcata Modeshift Project leader, with comments by Colin Fiske, campaign coordinator for CRTP.

Campbell, a scientist with Humboldt State’s Dept. of Physics and Astronomy, mined the city’s online CitizenRIMS crime-mapping data to create a heat map of Plaza-area vehicle accidents, of which there have been many. “It’s not a particularly safe situation for everyone,” he said.

Campbell cited a theory by the Project for Public Spaces which holds that 10 or more activities are required for any given location to “create the kind of synergy” that allows them to flourish. He said that other than during fairs and the Farmers’ Market, with just car parking, relaxing, eating, drinking and shopping to engage Plazagoers, it falls far short. “Our idea is to bring more activities into the space,” Campbell said.

Colin Fiske

The perception of anti-social behavior is also borne out in APD data, with lots of calls for service originating on the Plaza. “It’s the hot spot,” he said. That, CRTP believes, is because the Plaza is “diced up” by rows of parked cars that isolate people and limit the sense of community.

The solution, Campbell said, is limiting parking on Eighth and Ninth with use of bollards which would still allow access by emergency and delivery vehicles. The car-liberated sections of street would then be free to host features such as outdoor dining.

The speed limit on G and H streets would be reduced to 5 mph, relaxing the boundaries between shops and the Plaza and creating a “greater normative force.”

“We would try to soften the barriers between people in the shops and people in the streets,” Campbell said.

Citing studies, Campbell said that social interaction is associated with a variety of health and community benefits, from better mental and physical health, improved sleep, fewer gangs, fewer divorces and even improved longevity.

“A more social place is a place that has lower crime,” he said.

Improving the Plaza’s social element, he said, would also make local businesses more competitive with the likes of Amazon.

Through a combination of site visits and Google Maps, Campbell said he counted 2,200 parking spaces within a quarter mile of the Plaza. That, he said, is the distance people are willing to walk from their cars to businesses and activities.

With 4 percent of the downtown parking on the Plaza, closing Eighth and Ninth would mean a loss of just 2 percent. Businesses, Campbell said, overestimate how many customers arrive by car, and drivers spend less than bicyclists.

A “living Plaza” would be festooned with human-scale activities, from dining to culture to recreation. The specifics would be determined via a subsequent process, but, Campbell said, “there’s lots of ways to thread this needle.”

“The future of the Plaza is up to us,” Campbell said.

Attendees at the presentation had concerns. Limiting parking could make things harder for the elderly, and would throw the viability of some businesses into question.

Vicky Joyce, president of Arcata Main Street and proprietor of Bubbles, said her customers’ foremost complaint is the lack of parking downtown. Expecting them to hike long distances “might be a stretch for a large portion of the populace.”

Downtown parking is indicated in this image from CRTP's "Case for a Living Plaza" report.

Fiske said building car infrastructure only encourages car use, and that “if you remove some parking, you’ll probably shift some trips to walking or biking.” But he acknowledged that there is “a leap of faith” involved.

Joyce said convenience-challenged customers would just drive to the mall.

Kathleen Marshall said that her travels have shown her that walkable shopping districts, which she has observed in action elewhere in the world, are appealing and vibrant. She said she never visits the Plaza any more in its present state. “It is absolutely addressable in the proposals that have been presented here,” she said.

Fiske passed around a draft copy of a letter asking the City Council to initiate “an appropriate public process” to implement those and other proposals. “We don’t think we have all the ideas,” he said.

Initial actions would be to make the Plaza car-free during the Farmers’ Market, and work with downtown businesses to improve safety and community there.

JoAnne McGarry said the Plaza is stagnant, and that removable fixtures such as play equipment that could be wheeled in and out would allow for experimentation. “Trying stuff before you nail it down is something that I like,” she said.

Campbell said CRTP wants the City Council to “direct staff to come up with a proposal for changing the Plaza that maybe uses some of the ideas here as a starting point.”

The council would almost certainly refer CRTP to make presentations and develop proposals with the citizen-led Transportation Safety and Economic Development committees, as well as the Public Safety Task Force. Those bodies include volunteers who have expertise in relevant fields and advise the council on their areas of focus.

Fiske said while there have been informal conversations with Transportation Safety Committee members, no formal presentations have yet been made to the relevant committees.

Campbell said CRTP has no official position on the McKinley statue, a radioactive issue at this point. “We tried to avoid that one with a 20-foot pole,” he said.

The Public Safety Task Force will again discuss the Plaza at its monthly meeting tonight (see Democracy in Action, upper right).

Read CRTP’s “The Case for a Living Plaza in Arcata” proposal at transportationpriorities.org.

 







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