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Why Two-Way?

news2-1The logic behind one expert’s recommendation that Pacific Avenue traffic go both ways

The Santa Cruz Downtown Commission is once again pushing forward a proposal made last year by urban retail expert Robert Gibbs to convert Pacific Avenue into a two-way street—a change he claims would make downtown easier to navigate and cause sales to increase dramatically.

In addition to traveling the country advising communities on how to improve economic vitality in their downtowns, Gibbs, who hails from Michigan, teaches a class on urban retail at Harvard University and also recently published a book titled “Principles for Urban Retail Planning and Development,” which includes a chapter on Santa Cruz. He writes that Santa Cruz has the potential for an ideal downtown, with its diversity of businesses and lively ambiance. But he says the one-way streets on and around Pacific Avenue confuse drivers and deter people from visiting shops on opposite ends of the strip, resulting in lost sales.

news2-3Gibbs first came to Santa Cruz in 2009 on an invitation from the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce to speak at a business fair about “New Urbanism,” which he calls an approach to development that promotes integrated, diverse, vibrant and conventional community centers. He returned in September of last year to consult with city officials on how to improve our downtown.

“Pacific Avenue is laid out so you cannot drive from one end to the other in either direction,” Gibbs says, adding that people tend to scout the shops they will go to from their cars. He says that the places people see while driving heavily dictate the way they will shop.

“So if you start shopping at one end and want to [drive] to the other, you get kicked off, and we don’t think many shoppers will go off the block and come back,” Gibbs explains. “They’re more likely to go on their way.”

With environmental and health awareness on the rise, is it wise to encourage more driving downtown rather than walking or bicycling? While Gibbs says there is some truth to the importance of getting people walking, he adds, “You have to get them to drive close to the store first. People shop from their cars.”

Gibbs estimated that converting Pacific Avenue to a two-way street would result in a 20 to 30 percent increase in sales at downtown shops. Bill Tysseling, the executive director at the Santa Cruz Chamber of Commerce, says this equates to about $90 million annually. 

Based on sales tax data collected by the City of Santa Cruz for the downtown area, even a 10 percent increase would result in an additional $150,000 annually in sales tax revenue for the city’s General Fund.

news2-2Last year, the Downtown Commission, galvanized by Gibbs’ estimates, moved forward quickly with the two-way proposal, hoping to implement the plan in time for the holiday season. But the initiative was put on the back burner when complexities arose concerning the width of the avenue and the ability of fire engines to maneuver the street with its current parking arrangement. Gibbs’ original recommendation did not include eliminating parking spaces for the two-way conversion, but after Public Works ran a two-way trial, it became evident that keeping all on-street parking was impossible, city engineer Chris Schneiter says.

Seven months have passed and now the proposal to convert Pacific Avenue into a two-way is back on the table with some revisions, Downtown Commission Chairman Jesse Nickell says. The Downtown Commission approved the two-way plan on May 24.

The city council, which will need to approve the plan before it is executed, does not yet have the item on its agenda, and Tysseling does not think a final decision will be made for several months. City Councilwoman Lynn Robinson could not comment on the likelihood of the two-way plan going into effect, but says she is open to a change.

“We’ve gotten so used to what’s there that we think it’s working,” she says, “but I’m convinced we can improve it.”

Determining a workable balance between the parking and street simplification is still in the works, according to Tysseling. If the two-way plan were implemented, parking on one side of Pacific Avenue would be removed, totaling in a loss of 39 spaces. Fire truck access is also still an issue. The two-way plan would cost $38,200 to implement and removing the parking would result in $52,000 lost annually.

Gibbs concedes that the prospect of downtown losing that many business-side parking spots “would be significant setback,” and says he would not be able to recommend the two-way conversion if it would result in losing more than 10 percent of Pacific Avenue’s on-street parking. He’s confident, however, there’s a way to make it work.

Other drawbacks to a two-way design are additional congestion at intersections, more air pollution and loss of bike lanes on several side streets, according to the Downtown Commission’s May 24 Agenda.

Gibbs tells GT that in his experience, two-way conversions have created a calmer environment for drivers and pedestrians and helped mitigate traffic, while one-ways cause confusion.

Noi Kaulukukui, sales manager at O’Neill Surf Shop, says he hears customers complain more about parking downtown than navigating the streets.

Some downtown employees express interest in converting Pacific Avenue into a car-free pedestrian mall, suggesting that that could increase sales downtown.

According to Gibbs, that system is rarely successful.

In the ‘60s, there were 260 no-car downtowns developed around the country, he says.

“Two hundred and fifty of those went into a ‘tailspin’ and only six worked,” he says. “Many lost all their retail and the downtowns stayed vacant.”

An alternative that accomplishes some of the same things a two-way configuration would while maintaining parking spaces is converting the length of Pacific Avenue into a one-way, Schneiter says. A one-way conversion would cost $25,000.

Implementing the one-way plan would make for a much simpler downtown, Gibbs says, but travel from the beach into downtown would still be problematic.

While some downtown shop owners say it would be best to leave things the way they are, Economic Development Director Bonnie Lipscomb says that all findings indicate the current configuration is not working. 

Changing the traffic configuration will make a difference, Lipscomb says.

“People struggle with the lay of the land,” she says. “You want traffic flow to be intuitive, and it’s not here.”

Photo: Keana Parker


 

pacific avenueWhat are your thoughts? Do you find the current traffic pattern confusing? Does it stop you from coming downtown? Please write your comments below.


Comments (8)Add Comment
...
written by a guest, June 19, 2012
The problem is not cars on Pacific but is our short 'downtown' best shared with cars or can we get more out of it. Cars are meant to transport people and then get-out-of-the-way (park). So make it easier to drive to downtown and find a parking space. Then make downtown welcoming to people.
Malls do not have cars - and most seem to be bigger than Pacific.
Many succsessful, interesting and vibrant areas I can think of are pedestrian. Success=Cars is not a given.
...
written by a guest, June 19, 2012
In my way of thinking pedestrian-only has a number of interesting and unique growth potentials. Wider walking areas that do not block-up, muti-directional strolling capabilities, circular sitting areas, kiosks with surrounds, featured rotating merchants in kiosks, information/direction boards (interactive), overhead public art, and who knows what else.
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written by a guest, June 15, 2012
I wonder why the Santa Cruz Downtown Commission listens to a "retail expert" from Harvard to consult on traffic routing downtown. "People shop from their cars" - since when can I drive my car into a shop to see what I want? Why reactivate a nonsensical paradigm of funneling more traffic downtown? Think local first and sustainably - why not ask people who actually live here on what to do? And if we look for advice from far away, Europe's cities have good shopping, safety and ambiance with pedestrian zones where people actually want to hang out and shop...
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written by a guest, June 14, 2012
Strictly a pedestrian mall would be really cool to see, but I think that would be in a perfect world. I try to avoid driving on that road at all anyway. It's easy enough to park on Cedar or Center even, and walk over. I would imagine tourists would see otherwise though and they are the money makers.
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written by a guest, June 14, 2012
Once you know the street it isn't a problem. For visitors why not put up signs directing people to "Downtown Parking"? and have them walk the block to a reinvigorated walk-only Pacific Avenue? We need an inviting Commons with established zones for performers. This would make it that much more inviting; sitting on Pacific now is noisy and crossing it is often uninviting due to impatient drivers. It's odd how little outdoor seating we have considering our amazing weather.
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written by a guest, June 13, 2012
Its a mess. I avoid it. Pedestrians cross whenever, wherever they want to. Drivers looking at stores, people etc drive very slowly. If I need to purchase something on Pacific I park elsewhere and walk to Pacific. Faster, easier on my nerves.
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written by a guest, June 13, 2012
I think the system we have now works OK, could be better but not sure what would satisfy tourists, locals and business alike? My idea is to make the mall pedestrian on Sundays during the Summers, I would also encourage more music, arts, theater, and street vendors all the time. Santa Cruz is a special place, we could embrace the artists downtown and everyone would benefit. Wj
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written by a guest, June 13, 2012
I don't come downtown too often because of the lack of pedestrian control crossing streets and holding up cars trying to get on and off Pacific. You could be stranded from going across a street for minutes and cars back up and can't go anywhere. The same thing is true for the pier and beach area. There is a need for a PED. light so they must stop so cars won't get congested. ALSO, I think it was a DUMB thing to take away the 3way stop going to the pier/B/walk. Cars coming down the side street at the Mx food place can't turn left because cross traffic doesn't have to stop any more.

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