Earlier in the month, the Indianapolis Star featured an article on the extensive development plans that are materializing for the City of Greenwood, with the goal of turning the historic main street back into a desirable retail destination for locals and visitors. The southerly suburb’s commercial center sits at the convergence of Main Street and Madison Avenue, stretching approximately one block in each direction, though the bulk of the historic architecture rests along Main Street, the east-west axis. By some locals’ perceptions, Greenwood’s Main Street has trended downward in the last decade, losing longtime tenants such as the Bay Window restaurant. A few of the buildings are looking a little dowdy, but “blighted” in my opinion would be an unfair label; it’s not hard to find far more dilapidated main streets elsewhere in the country (and in Indiana). Nonetheless, Greenwood’s small downtown is hardly lively, and while the idea of replicating Carmel’s colossal investments is unlikely to appeal to many of the suburb’s citizens, most people who have participated in these meetings have shown genuine enthusiasm toward the notion of revitalizing the area.
Much of the future of Greenwood’s Main Street hinges upon the development decisions that will take place at the southwest corner of the intersection. Here’s what it looks like, as viewed from the northeast corner, looking across:
Many years ago, city leadership decided to demolish all the old commercial buildings at this intersection to make way for public parking. The photo below compares the demolished southwest corner of the intersection with the intact northwest.
The vantage point from that photo comes from the southwest parking lot (where the building used to be) looking across the street. Through the stroke of a pen, the City of Greenwood lost close to one quarter of the historic buildings from its main street.
Hindsight is 20/20, and most stakeholders recognize today that such a defiant anti-preservationist gesture was a mistake. Now the goal is to find a suitable infill development that will match the general urban form of Main Street while providing opportunities for retail, offices, housing and a parking garage. The rendering from the Star article reveals much of this plan, to be funded by a new Tax Increment Financing district. By most metrics, it seems like a smart move: a large mixed-use building that will add much-needed density to an area that will depend on visibility to keep its retail core active and energized. Here’s what an early rendering looks like:
This building hopes to catalyze the reorienting of Greenwood’s Main Street into a retail and commercial destination that can compete with the goliath Greenwood Park Mall a mile to the north. A full presentation providing greater detail and imagery to support the plan is available on the City of Greenwood’s Economic Development Commission webpage.
From our discussion with a representative from the Economic Development Commission, Greenwood has more momentum and community support for a comprehensive downtown revitalization plan than it ever has in the past. However, Main Street Greenwood also faces other engineering challenges that may prove much more difficult to accommodate than simply replacing big parking lot with a mixed-use building. By almost any standard, the road is narrow, and so are the sidewalks. It needs to accommodate a fairly high volume of traffic, yet it remains predominantly two lanes, with occasional expansions for a left-turn lane, such as at Main Street’s intersection with Madison Avenue—the heart of Greenwood’s downtown. Here’s a view of Main Street facing westward, right before it intersects Madison Avenue:
Here’s looking at that same intersection facing eastward:
It is a two-lane street with a turn lane. The white stripes on the right side of the road that suggest on-street parking spaces are deceptive, because the sign on the sidewalk shows that it is either prohibited or restricted for 15-minute unloading intervals at select times. Here’s a slightly clearer image of the restrictive signs:
Notice the traffic blocking the on-street parking spaces. If those spaces were permanently set aside, it would induce serious congestion in the street segment where vehicles are preparing to make left turns but the turn lane does not yet exist. It would also seriously restrict the lane used for making right turns. At this point, the on-street parking is understandably only available for select occasions, but it certainly impedes the accessibility of the storefronts along Main Street to some convenient short-term parking spaces.
The adjacent sidewalk is problematic as well:
It’s narrow enough that it would be hard to accommodate further amenities like bike racks, planters, or permanent street furniture. The sidewalks along Madison Avenue downtown are even worse:
Two people can barely walk side-by-side. The sidewalks themselves might meet the acceptable minimum width for a small town’s commercial district, but, after several decades of annexation and expansion, Greenwood’s population approached 50,000 at the 2010 Census. It’s more than a small town; it’s a significant suburb. A city of this size understandably aspires to something more than a single intersection if it hopes for its downtown to evolve into a regional destination, but these four-foot wide sidewalks (complete with intermittent utility poles to exacerbate the clutter) simply are not suitable capacity to serve a “destination downtown” to a medium sized city.
In short, it behooves Greenwood to re-evaluate the scale of its fundamental urban infrastructure. Otherwise, it will be hard for the city to restore the appeal it might have had when it was the commercial center of a humble little farming community. Thanks to the initiatives of the Greenwood Economic Development Commission, the proposal includes a complete rethinking of vehicular traffic circulation in the area, so that it might achieve a better harmony between cars and pedestrians, while integrating urban infill on that underutilized southwest corner. This component of the revitalization plan also shows a high level of dedication, but, from the perspective of the two Urban Indy writers who have engaged in the project, it merits further consideration. As indicated from the plan, here is an aerial photograph of downtown Greenwood, at the intersection of Main Street and Madison Avenue. Meridian Street is the other north-south collector road that runs near the right (east) of the frame. (Note to those unfamiliar with Greenwood: this Meridian Street does NOT connect with the Meridian Street arterial in Indianapolis.)
Here’s a conventional Google Maps representation, which shows the street names.
All streets are currently two-way, as indicated by the aerial. However, this Downtown Revitalization Plan plans to alter traffic patterns dramatically, using the configuration below:
Under this new plan, West Main Street would run one-way westward through downtown. Vehicles seeking to travel east on Main Street would be forced to turn onto Market Plaza, the road shaped like a backwards J. The intersection of Market Plaza and Main Street will look like the rendering below, featuring the new construction on the southwest parking lot.
From there, Market Plaza will bend around to the south and then to the east. It will intersect Madison Avenue in a roundabout, where vehicles can travel northward on Madison Avenue until they reach the small bow-shaped street, Machledt Drive, which will run through Old City Park and will be expanded to accommodate one-way eastbound traffic. Macheldt Drive will meet two-way Meridian Street, at which point motorists can head north to continue eastward on a Main Street that is once again two-way. The biggest goal from this reconfiguration will be to reduce the need for turn lanes on Main Street, allowing the street to shrink to two lanes in its entirety, so that part of the margins of the road can be narrowed to allow for wider sidewalks. Most Economic Development Commission meetings have suggested that local businesses support the plan.
It’s a complicated idea that demonstrates some careful rethinking, but is it the best option? I’m by no means certain it is a bad solution to a challenging design predicament that allows little room for flexibility, but it does raise a few questions that might otherwise get ignored. Here are the most critical considerations that come to mind for those of us at Urban Indy involved in the project:
1) Are one-way streets optimal for retail? While one-way makes it easier for cars to get from A to B with fewer impediments, it also means that motorists have only one direction by which to approach and view the streetscape. Thus, retail that fronts a one-way street has 50% of the visibility of a two-way street. The most successful commercial strips in downtown Indianapolis are Meridian Street through the Wholesale District and Massachusetts Avenue. Imagine if these streets, or Broad Ripple Avenue (another narrow collector street) were one way: how could that possibly benefit the businesses when people headed in another direction will have to use another street to get around? Bear in mind that Indy has reduced some of its one-way streets in recent years, with a portions of Delaware Street and College Avenue reverting to two-way traffic for the first time in decades. Meanwhile, I wrote about Kokomo on my own blog, where city leaders recently eliminated all one-way streets downtown. Judging from these decisions, other communities have often decided that one-way streets no silver bullet for revitalizing downtowns.
2) Could a confusing traffic pattern repel the target audience? When I first saw the green-and-white street map with the directional arrows from the Downtown Revitalization Plan, it made me think of a New England town center. Those who have lived in that region probably know what I’m talking about. Many towns in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, though no bigger than Greenwood, have a town center that uses a tangle of non-parallel one ways, roundabouts, and block-long stub streets that might require backtracking to get the motorists back in the direction they want to go. These baffling town centers work fairly well in New England because no alternatives exist; the streets were never organized in a conventional grid pattern, so modern traffic engineers forced them to adapt to a post-vehicular setting. Conversely, most Indiana town centers are intensely grid based, so motorists have no need to orient themselves to an idiosyncratic new traffic pattern. I fear that this new layout could hurt downtown Greenwood’s brand if people lose patience with it, thereby achieving the opposite of the desired effect.
3) Why should a downtown revitalization plan put traffic flow at such high priority? This question may be the single most critical. Attractive downtowns, big and small, do not usually have cars zipping through them at high speeds. Why does Main Street Greenwood need to function at the LOS (Level of Service) of a major thoroughfare, when improved pedestrianism is also a clearly articulated goal? If vehicles can travel too quickly, it won’t matter how much wider those sidewalks are—people still won’t feel safe or comfortable. The zoomed-out Google Map below might shed some light on a kinder, gentler approach:
Decades ago, INDOT built the exit ramp at Main Street allowing Interstate 65 to to Greenwood. This exit ramp opened Main Street (also known as County Road 950 North) to a significantly higher traffic volume than it and the small downtown had previously accommodated. While the DOT widened Main Street at the I-65 interchange, it tapers quickly and remains a modest two-lane as it continues westward through Greenwood’s historic center. Approximately a decade ago, INDOT supported the construction of another exit ramp about a mile north, at County Line Road. This road—the boundary between Indianapolis and Greenwood—is a busy arterial, with four or five lanes through much of its duration. It can handle much higher traffic volumes. So can Emerson Avenue and Smith Valley Road, which runs parallel to Main Street to the south. The Emerson Avenue portion looks like this:
Another four-lane arterial. While Emerson Avenue attenuates into two-lane at the curve where it becomes Smith Valley Road, this street still has lower population density, fewer intersections, and higher speed limits than Main Street. In short, both County Line Road and Emerson Avenue/Smith Valley Road could serve as bypass streets for those seeking east-west travel at high speeds, while Main Street is the Business District Route, suitable for those visiting the town center and all its amenities.
I am hardly a traffic engineer, and I suspect that I am not accounting for a number of other critical considerations necessary in the reconfiguration of Greenwood’s downtown. But my planning background impels me to ask the above questions, which could help develop a nuanced design that proves the lynchpin to Main Street’s success. The current plan would require significant public works investment, an education of the public to the new traffic flow, and the widening of Machledt Drive into a busier one-way collector road at the likely expense of parkland. My recommendation isn’t exactly a “do nothing” approach, but it certainly involves doing less, with the goal of saving public money that can ideally be put to better use.
I recommend leaving Main Street at two-way through its entire length. Instead of encouraging high-speed traffic flow through an area originally designed for pedestrians, the City should use signage to guide motorists to Emerson Avenue/Smith Valley Road or County Line Road as higher-speed bypass routes. Greenwood could benefit from directional signage, even at the I-65 interchanges, perhaps on par with Plainfield’s excellent wayfinding signs. In the meantime, Main Street Greenwood could benefit from traffic calming devices such as bulb-outs or chicanes, which would allow for wider sidewalks where it matters most. The cartways could be narrower, encouraging slower vehicular speeds and possibly allowing enough room for some permanent on-street parking near the storefronts. If it is necessary to eliminate the left-turn lanes to make more room for streetscape enhancements (and it very well may not be necessary), turning left onto Madison Avenue could be restricted to certain times of day or special conditions, while additional signage could indicate alternative routes on Meridian Street, Brewer Street, or Market Plaza. Instead of spending colossal amounts of money on a roundabout or Machledt Drive widening, this money could go toward improving the pedestrian experience on both Main Street and Madison Avenue.
This solution will inevitably do little to resolve vehicular congestion along Main Street, but since the existing built environment does not allow all modes equal levels of accommodation, I remain convinced that high-speed traffic flow is the least essential element to a revitalized downtown Greenwood. A busy night along Broad Ripple Avenue sees traffic at an absolute gridlock, and no one seems to mind; people familiar with the area know that Broad Ripple Avenue (even without those bike lanes) was never the way to get quickly from A to B. Our hope is that as plans for Greenwood’s Main Street continue to evolve, the Economic Development Commission, traffic engineers, political leaders, small business owners, and other interested citizens continue to consider the full design ramifications to a project that has equal potentiality to fail or to flourish. Sensitivity to these details may not guarantee the latter of those two outcomes, but it will certainly improve the chances. Greenwood by and large has no interest in duplicating Carmel, but it should review the Carmel vision with the hope that it can learn from that suburb’s mistakes. We at Urban Indy look forward to hearing other people’s opinions and perspectives; ideally this article will serve as a sounding board that can help Greenwood devise the best solution for its worthy downtown.