Letter: Turn East Pleasant Street Into A Pedestrian Mall

Pedestrian Mall in Madison, WI. Photo: Richard Hurd, Timeline Embed. Creative Commons

A Proposal For Converting Pleasant Street between the Town Common and the Triangle Roundabout into a pedestrian zone without car traffic.

Question: Can this be accomplished while solving our parking dilemma and maintaining traffic flow.

Proposal: Traffic would be redirected when coming from the south: Cars would turn East on Main Street and connect to the Roundabout via Triangle Street.

Cars coming from the North would either continue via Triangle Street and Main Street or turn west towards Commonwealth Avenue and continue traveling south on University Drive.

Adequate parking should be provided at both ends of the pedestrian zone via two parking garages: One at the Amherst Cinema parking lot (with possibility of a pedestrian bridge to library) and one near the roundabout, near Archipelago apartments. Private developers might finance this, as garages, particularly with long-term parking possibilities, can be profitable and also attractive. 

Both should be multi level parking garages. 

Benefits: If East Pleasant from Triangle to Amity would be pedestrian only, it would allow wide walking spaces and places to sit in front of multiple businesses which could spring up to cater to this foot traffic. An electric golf cart could slowly roll up and down to provide aid to handicapped or walking impaired. Others, children, seniors, etc, would feel safe ambling along these pedestrian only spaces.

Only those who have business downtown, visiting the library, shopping, dining, attending the cinema, church etc. need to bring cars into town. It would cease to be a place to drive through en route to other destinations. It would free valuable space for foot traffic. According to towns who have done this, it will attract, rather than discourage, a thriving downtown economy. This  is an important goal and must weigh in heavily. 

Ruminations: Sound utopian, far-sighted? …Should we be in the forefront of development, joining towns that stand to profit from desirability as destination and tourist attractions? Colleges, I believe, would embrace a special town such as this, because a great town, where one likes to spend time, enhances the attractiveness of the colleges that reside there. Yes we are small, but that too could give us flexibility to move in this direction.

Finally: Are there issues of access that need to be worked out? Absolutely. And differently for each individual entity and business that is affected. That is what urban developers and professionals are there for. These are people who work on the big picture rather than individual developers who must put profit first, although Amherst has been blessed with some very fine developers who reside here and have contributed mightily to the common good. They too, might welcome this direction as a path forward. 

Karin Winter

Karin Winter is a resident of Amherst

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4 thoughts on “Letter: Turn East Pleasant Street Into A Pedestrian Mall

  1. I just learned that the Indy site briefly crashed.

    Luckily, Karin wrote privately to me this afternoon, just before the crash, so I’m reposting my comment from this morning (and note that Karin thanked me, when she realized that I was serious, even if I too tilt toward the utopian):

    I really like the spirit of this proposal!

    While we’re at it, let’s subtract the parking structures but add a subway rail-shuttle running through Amherst Center from the UMass Campus Center, stopping at the Fine Arts Center, Kendrick Park and the Town Common, then connecting at the Amherst Depot on Main Street with the rail line to Palmer, with a quick transfer onto high speed passenger rail for Boston, Springfield, Hartford, New York, Philadelphia and beyond…. To get around locally, many folks could walk… or bike (or trike, perhaps with electric assist…) or ride the local bus (again, electric, with regenerative braking…).

    In much of the world (and once-upon-a-time-in-America) that’s how people typically get around. And in this way, we not only rid ourselves of most cars (and parking) in Amherst, but also connect with other places as well, without being so dependent on private cars.

    There have been serious proposals and serious studies along these lines for decades. And while skeptics often dismiss these as impractical, just remember that really good ideas can take a very long time to be realized….

    For completeness, I also share postscripts that I wrote to Karin later today [lightly edited for clarity]:

    P.S.3: And of course I was sincere about what I wrote in the first sentence:

    “I really like the spirit of this proposal!”

    Utopian “pie in the sky” is what I also aim for, in hope of getting at least part of the way there.

    And there are many examples for what you propose all over the world, even in some
    relatively small cities, like Würzburg, where the pedestrianized streets have little metal Squirrel (Eichhörnchen?) icons embedded in the concrete: it’s a nice example of a motor-vehicle-free zone, except transit buses wend their way through the pedestrian area, which may also be needed for the buses we need in Amherst (hence the subway suggestion)….

    P.S.2: The price (many tens of millions of dollars, if not more) of the two large public parking structures your propose would be high enough to go a long way toward building a combination of single-track subway and surface railway between the Amherst Depot and UMass Campus Center, so why not think big?

    P.S.1: I’m serious, at least about getting Amherst reconnected to intercity rail via a rail shuttle to Palmer on the existing rail line [and I’ve written about it in the past, both here at the Indy, and in the Gazette, and have testified about it in the context of East-West Rail at many public hearings throughout Massachusetts over the past few decades – I even discussed it in detail privately with former Governor Mike Dukakis around a quarter century ago, in the context of other still-needed rail links, such as between North and South Stations in Boston ].

    The extension to Amherst Center and UMass is likely an impossible dream for now, at least if it were a subway (U-bahn). But there was once a trolley (not quite an S-bahn) on most of the same route: it ran until around WWII, going south over the Notch to Holyoke and north to Sunderland, pretty much along what was then — and mostly still is — Rte116: instead of “Autobahn 116” a mile west the UMass campus, the trolley went right up North Pleasant along on the west side of what now Kendrick Park and through the middle of campus, past the N. Amherst Library, along Sunderland Road….

    Until we get reconnected to the world via modern, effective public transportation like high-speed rail, Amherst will remain a mess of private cars, a big fraction of which are driven — and parked — by UMass students from the Boston and New York metropolitan areas, who
    would also be the constituents well served by passenger rail, so it would be a win-win for out students. The most recent study for doing this was conducted by the Town’s Save Our Stop Task Force about a decade ago when the Vermonter was being shifted back to west side of the Connecticut River. [An interesting idea emerged from that study: the rail line from Amherst to Palmer continues down to New London, right past UConn in Storrs/Mansfield, so it could connect the campuses of the two largest public universities in New England, also improve to public transportation the in our neighboring state to the south.]

  2. There are several impressively successful pedestrian malls in college towns (see e.g. https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/ex/sustainablecitiescollective/5-great-pedestrian-malls-demonstrating-car-free-urban-possibilities/53246/) and one characteristic of most them was that there was passionate opposition and doom saying when they were proposed. Such was the case in Madison, WI (pictured in the thumbnail) which turned the main drag through campus into a pedestrian and public bus mall the year after I graduated from the University of Wisconsin (1974). There was much opposition and predictions of retail collapse and there is still opposition, but each time I returned to Madison I saw the mall become more vibrant and more a center of commerce and culture and today, Madison’s State Street is regarded as one of the great and most successful pedestrian malls in the country. And while there’s still plenty of controversy about the concept, it’s definitely worth taking a look at the diverse literature that has developed around it.

    It’s not at all clear whether Amherst could manage the re-routing of traffic that creating a pedestrian mall on the Pleasant streets would require. Perhaps traffic modeling would deem it unviable. And with the entrance to the new garage likely to be from North Pleasant Street, the garage itself would pose a pretty formidable obstacle. But the annual block party downtown, now sadly on sabbatical due to the pandemic, gives us a small hint of the kind of vibrant activity that might be possible if we expanded the sidewalks, diverted the cars, and opened up the streets Thanks to Karin Winter for inviting us to think creatively about this and other ways to make our downtown more vibrant and inviting.

  3. I respect the thinking to go full tilt in another direction, ie: pedestrian mall.

    There were many Main Streets turned into pedestrian malls, under Community Development programs in the 1970s. Some succeeded, ie: in Ithaca, some floundered for a while, and then got “vibrant” ie Santa Monica, some were failures, ie: where my 90 year old store was, in Freeport, Long Island. We merchants had to fight to create a special tax district to pay for it to be undone, and by then, the street suffered a lot. Part of the problem was it was now legally a sidewalk, and you could not control loitering, which did not create a conducive shopping environment. My solution, at least on weekends, in my role as head of the retail division of the chamber, was to fill the street with entertainment, from showmobiles with Army bands, to a local chessmaster who could play 20 games at once, to wandering mimes and magicians.

    Before turning downtown Amherst into a “pedestrian promenade” we should certainly study what has worked and what has not worked, in the many dozens of towns and cities that have tried it.

  4. Thank you Karin for initiating this discussion. Thank you Rob for being absurdly visionary, that is so missing in our current practice. Thank you Art and Ira for linking this discussion to real world examples of such attempts and offering “reality checks”. This could be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue that could easily lead to actionable initiatives.

    Since I first moved to Amherst more than 27 years ago I have been thinking about this idea and more with regards to our town center. I am certain that if we could harness and coordinate our collective creativity, wisdom and wealth for a sustained period of time, we could generate a series of actionable ideas that would bring character, quality and a spirit of joy and unity to our town and all of its diverse inhabitants.

    Without judgement or criticism, it seems to me that our town government and its boards, have not shown much appetite for visionary projects. I had thought that perhaps the Planning Board might be an agency to initiate and coordinate such gatherings of diverse community members, but that seems unlikely at this time. I have long thought about launching such an initiative as a “grassroots” citizen driven project, but it has never gotten beyond my “to do” list. Dare I make a “public” commitment to work to ensure that this discussion started by Karin continue in a formal and coordinated manner. I do have a plan for how that might be done. Any Indy readers want to assist? Please contact me? The Indy itself will be a useful tool to facilitate the creation and growth of such an initiative.

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