NEW ALBANY — Towns across Indiana are revamping their downtowns to attract and keep residents, and street conversion is an important part of some of their plans.
Warsaw, Whiting, Jeffersonville and New Albany all have been making an effort to improve their downtowns, said Matt Greller, executive director of the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.
Not all those places, however, have converted their one-way streets to two-way streets. Research has shown that street conversion makes areas more retail and pedestrian friendly, and Greller said it has worked well for some Indiana towns that have tried it.
PROS AND CONS
New Albany recently joined the mix of towns considering converting some or all downtown roadways -- Spring, Elm and Market, considered major thoroughfares through town -- to two-way streets.
In January of last year, planner and author Jeff Speck released a plan that calls for a conversion from one-way to two-way traffic for the downtown and midtown portions of Elm, Spring and Market streets, along with the addition of bicycle lanes. Speck also proposed limiting the lane sizes on Main Street west of the recent improvements so that bike lanes can be added. He wrote in the 100-page report that reduced lane width will make streets safer for pedestrians as well as motorists, as traffic speed will naturally be lowered due to the narrower roadway.
Since the report was released, the city has been receiving input from the public and completing a cost study on converting the downtown streets to two-way. New Albany Mayor Jeff Gahan has said he is open to street conversions, but he wants to know what it will cost the city before being all-in on the idea.
Changing streets is not as easy as it sounds.
“It’s a lot more than just moving a few signs around,” said Bob Caesar, a member of the New Albany City Council and a downtown merchant for 45 years before closing his store and retiring late last year. “There has not been a cost plan put together for this. It will cost a lot more than people realize. There will have to be a lot more stoplights put in, and it will be expensive.”
The possible changes to New Albany streets was met with opposition from Padgett Inc. and other trucking companies. Officials with the New Albany-based Padgett crane company said converting Spring Street to two-way would make it impossible for Padgett’s large vehicles to turn right onto Spring. They must now turn across two lanes of Spring Street in order to make the turn from Fourth Street.
“Our opinion has not changed,” said Darrin Deatrick, safety manager for Padgett. “When we make the big sweeping turn, we almost take up the entire width of the street.”
New Albany Clean and Green President Irv Stumler has also voiced opposition about the possible street conversions. He said New Albany is already a walkable city and doesn’t need to convert downtown streets.
“I think the traffic flow and safety is much better now than it would be if they were two-way streets,” Stumler said. “Especially Market, there is not enough room to have two-way unless they take parking out of one side.”
Stumler cited St. Mary’s Catholic Church, at the corner of Eighth and Spring streets, as an example. He said many parishioners currently park at Kraft Funeral Home across the street from St. Mary’s when attending Mass. He said now they just have to worry about traffic coming from one direction when crossing the street. If Spring were to be converted to two-way traffic, he said, it would be nearly impossible to cross at that corner.
“It’s been one way for so long that it will take people time to realize it’s two-way. There will have to be a learning period,” he said. “There is no doubt speed limits need to be enforced. But putting obstacles in the streets is no way to slow traffic.”
Not everyone is against the idea of two-way traffic downtown. Dr. Al Knable said he and the majority of people he’s spoken with believe the conversion would slow traffic and enhance the downtown area.
“There are a lot of influential people in town who do not want that to happen, and I respect their opinion,” said Knable, a New Albany city councilman. “But I am also entitled to my opinion. I have talked to a lot of people in town and the majority want to go to two-way.”
Caesar, who owned J.O. Endris & Sons Jewelers on Pearl Street, said he never heard customers or residents discuss changing Pearl from one-way to two-way. They most often were concerned about the lack of downtown parking, he said.
“For all of the years I was downtown, the problem was always merchants and customers parking on Pearl Street for eight hours a day,” he said. “As time has moved forward, a lot of younger people don’t see parking as a problem. They don’t care where they park. But some people demanded that they be able to park two or three spaces within that store they are going to.”
Caesar said he is open to street conversions, but that he needs more cost information.
Terry Middleton has operated a kickboxing school on Market Street for 44 years. He said he is for whatever is best for downtown New Albany, which could be switching some streets, but not others.
Councilman Knable thinks it time to start moving on the idea.
“I think it’s what is best. We have the data; it’s time to make a decision,” he said. “If I had my druthers, it would be to start converting to two-way.”
The New Albany Board of Public Works and Safety, whose members are appointed by Gahan, will make the final decision on converting streets.
Downtown revitalization, in general, is increasingly important as millennials, America’s largest living generation, set their sites on more urbanized (but not necessarily large) areas, Greller said. While it’s been suggested that millennials prefer cities to suburban areas, U.S. Census Bureau data released last March shows that more Americans ages 25 to 29 are moving out of the city than into it – just like previous generations. It showed younger people are electing to live in smaller places – like New Albany – where they receive the benefits of a bigger city.
The Breakwater Apartments, under construction along Spring Street, now a one-way roadway with three lanes, will offer more downtown living options. Older buildings in the downtown area have also been revamped into apartments as people have moved back to the city.
The push for converting streets was designed not only to attract more people downtown, but also to improve safety and promote more walking and bicycling. Many also believe that two-way streets are better for local merchants and will increase shopping traffic.
Most millennials still rank cost of housing as the most important community feature of the neighborhoods in which they’ll choose to live in five years, according to a 2015 survey from the Urban Land Institute. But they also listed “community character, ambiance and visual appeal,” as well as “proximity to shopping, dining and entertainment” and “walkability” as important.
Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight decided to address these trends a few years ago by transforming that city’s downtown. Kokomo partnered with Howard County to provide a rent abatement program to new businesses. The town also created a revolving loan fund and facade program and started hosting summer concerts.
Perhaps the most significant thing the city did, however, was convert most of its one-way streets to two-way. Goodnight called it the “most important” aspect of Kokomo’s downtown revitalization.
One-way streets originally dominated thoroughfares in downtowns across America as a more effective way of shepherding traffic from “Point A” to “B,” according to the book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time,” by Jeff Speck.
What cities didn’t bargain for with one-way streets was speeding cars and the harm inflicted on downtown retail districts, he writes. With the new traffic flow, stores on cross-streets became almost invisible to drivers, people from out of town became scared of getting lost in confusing traffic patterns, locals got frustrated by extra moves they had to make to reach their destination, and stores on the “morning path” to work were ignored when drivers did their shopping on the way home, according to Speck.
But Caesar said “consumer traffic is different that commuter traffic.” He said when people have several stops to make, they are just interested in getting to their destination in a timely manner.
“If you slow them down too much, they won’t come,” he said. “And people’s attitudes when it comes to driving will have to change. With two-way, you have to look for cars and pedestrians in different directions.”
New Albany is currently reworking some of Spring Street from Beharrell to Vincennes Street and including some speed-reduction plans.
John Gilderbloom, a professor at the University of Louisville, has conducted studies showing that one-way streets in Louisville have lower property values and higher crime rates than two-way streets.
Cities such as Portland, Oklahoma City, Miami, Dallas, Minneapolis, Charleston and Berkley have responded to these one-way street effects by converting their streets.
Since following in their footsteps, Kokomo has seen rapid growth. It’s now a shining example for other Indiana municipalities that hope to revive their downtowns, Greller said.
The town has opened a $16 million YMCA, built a baseball stadium and added 100 apartments with another 170 coming soon, Goodnight said.
Some downtown business owners in Kokomo appreciate the new traffic flow.
Chantel Kebrdle opened Jitterbug and Co., a gift and “homeware” boutique in the heart of downtown Kokomo, one year ago after she saw the area’s improvements.
“I think [the street conversion] made a big difference, and made it so much easier to get around the whole area,” she said.
Pam Sparling, the owner of Sycamore Cottage, another Kokomo store formerly located in the downtown hub, said she didn’t think the street conversion helped her business much, but she appreciated the town’s other changes.
She moved her shop to a different location in November, though, because she didn’t like the parking situation.
Kokomo’s street conversion wasn’t only beneficial to its downtown, it was inexpensive, too, the mayor said. The city saved money by replacing traffic lights with four-way stops.
Despite Kokomo’s success, not all Indiana towns need to convert their one-ways to two-ways to help their downtowns, Greller said.
“But,” he continued, “I would say the folks that are giving serious consideration to downtown revitalization are definitely looking at traffic patterns, and looking at how they can maximize those to increase traffic flow into the downtown area.”
— Assistant Editor Chris Morris contributed to this story