Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Don Roberts Elementary and the Need for Coordination

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department held a public meeting a week and a half ago at the new Don Roberts Elementary school regarding the department's upcoming Highway 10 Study. Apparently they think they can solve current congestion, crash, and access problems on Hwy 10 by redesigning the road to carry even more cars at even greater speeds. At a later date I'll get into why it's time to stop blindly following that old-fashioned line of reasoning in the context of Highway 10, but for now I'm just going to focus on one concrete, prime example of how we got ourselves into the mess we're in.

View Larger Map

That map up there shows the new Don Roberts school, a development and street both named Montagne Court, and some commercial/office buildings all located on a super-block roughly 1/4 mile square (~40 acres total for those keeping track at home).

By my count there are at least six entities that had a direct and significant impact on the layout/location/makeup of the things on that 'block': (1) Little Rock School District, (2) the Montagne Court developer, (3) the commercial space developer, (4) Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, (5) Little Rock Street Department, (6) Little Rock Planning Department, and I seriously doubt that all of them were ever part of the planning process together at the same time. One that should have been an integral part of the planning process from the beginning but probably wasn't even invited to the table: Central Arkansas Transit.

I'm sure all of the agencies and businesses involved are staffed and run by competent, well-meaning, highly trained adults with good intentions, but I can just about guarantee that if we gave blank paper and pencils to the kids in the elementary school and said "Design a neighborhood with 60 homes, a school, and some stores" that every single one of them would do, oh I don't know, maybe a bazillion-times better job than the professionals did. I don't mean to disparage the good folks who made this block happen, but merely want to point out how our current framework is utterly ineffective in situations like this.

Now, assuming there was an actual need to turn a greenfield into development in the first place, let's take a look and see how it could have been done better...

They Paved Paradise...
Giant parking lot: front and center, baby! Just like the Wal-Marts!
First of all, better integration into a walkable, bike-able neighborhood combined with transit coordination would lessen the need for this many parking spaces. Second, if you have to have a parking lot, at least tuck it around back instead of giving cars the prime corner real estate.

Side note: the entire campus of the closed Rightsell School in the historic part of LR would fit inside the new Roberts parking lot with room to spare.

And here we are looking west from near the edge of the parking lot. They call this one 'Forest Lane.' Seriously. No joke.
"Forest Lane"
I guess someone thought the wood in the trees would be better off in a big fence.
That wall extends the full length of the block from the edge of the school property all the way to Katillus Road. And what's at the corner of Forest and Katillus?...
That's right- another fence, this time made of bricks:
Katillus Road looking North from "Forest" Lane

Ok, ok, I know what you might be thinking: "But look! At least there are sidewalks, right?!" It doesn't matter. That completely misses the point of walkability. You can't just slap a strip of concrete down in a hostile environment and expect everything to suddenly be peachy keen. Creating a sense of place takes a bit more effort than that. Compare Katillus Road above to this gem in Richmond, VA, below. It's like night and day. Which one is more inviting to someone on foot?

One really inexcusable part about those fences is that all they're hiding is an alleyway that rings the entire neighborhood:
Alleyway on Edge of Montagne Neighborhood, Beside School
It might be hard to see, but that's the school on the left side of the pic behind the pine tree. Here's a better view from the alleyway:
So Close, yet So Far Away!
So close... yet so far away.

The neighborhood and school are just a few feet from each other, but there's absolutely no way to get from one to the other without going on a long, indirect route. If you lived in one of the houses that backs up to the school property and want to walk your kid to school, you'd have darned-near 2/3 of a mile to walk in each direction along a very unpleasant route.

Walk from Montagne to Roberts
This makes no sense
Even if you live in the house right by the one lone entrance to Montagne Court, you're still looking at half a mile, one way, to reach the front door of the school. So, yes technically one could walk it if one wished, but this combination of distance and inhospitable space puts it beyond the realm of what most people would choose to do on a regular basis as part of their everyday routine. It would have been (and still is) easy to install a gate through the fence to connect the alley with the school so that any of the families with children attending Roberts could easily and safely walk. Why wasn't that done from the beginning?

Now, turning to the commercial corner of the block...
If you walk out of the entrance to Mantagne Ct. and turn right, this is what you see:
Sidewalk Heading North Toward Cantrell

What's that at the far end of the sidewalk? Oh, of course: a ditch:
End of the Sidewalk

And then, if you walk around that ditch and turn right, there's... wait for it... another ditch:


A little further east on Hwy 10 there is a sidewalk, but it puts walkers way too close to 50+ mph traffic for anyone to feel safe and welcome:

Sidewalk pushed up to Hwy 10

Surprise, surprise...
Surprise, Surprise

So, here's the situation as I see it: there're 40 acres of land devoted to space for 60 homes, some commercial/office buildings, and a school. All told, maybe 1300 people (including ~900 kids) are on the property on any given day with absolutely no safe, convenient, pleasant way for anyone in one place to get to another without hopping in a car and driving. There's one bus route that drives by with maybe a couple or three buses in the morning and evening, but who would want to cross Cantrell here? This is but one example of many amazing opportunities squandered. Before we decide to spend millions more on making Hwy 10 accommodate even more traffic, we should take a long hard look at how we could make west Little Rock function as it should. I don't think anyone would articulate what we've actually put on the ground if they were asked to contemplate a vision for the future of west Little Rock. AHTD, the City of LR, LRSD, and the people who pay for it all (you and me, Mr. and Ms. Taxpayer) should sit down at the same table and hammer out some details instead of just building standalone projects in a bubble. Every decision is connected. When we build completely unwalkable places, we end up with car traffic, and treating the symptom alone will do nothing about the underlying problem.

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