Bringing Brackenridge Park to the street

Monday, Apr 18th, 2011, 12:01 pm Midtown, Redevelopment 1 Comment

The Express-News reported back in February that the Midtown Brackenridge master plan had been completed, with funding from the San Antonio River Authority (SARA). The plan rezones Broadway and N St Mary’s around Brackenridge Park, and invests heavily in making Broadway a more pedestrian-scale street (see a photo of the plan here).

The piece opens with the planners’ vision of a stronger connection between the streets and the 340 acre park, including trees and fountains along Broadway. The arterial street would be reduced from six lanes to four, allowing for on-street parking, bike lanes, and wider sidewalks. Presumably, the planned streetcar system would be integrated at the same time. New zoning would encourage high density mixed-use development.

The city has already designated a tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) in the area, and according to the E-N article, some of the funds have been used to encourage development, offering millions of dollars in tax breaks for apartments at the Pearl and commercial space in the old Butterkrust building.

E-N blogger Benjamin Olivo takes issue with the plan:

I’m wondering if Midtown Brackenridge (as the area’s been coined) needs massive infrastructure change to be successful. For me, it’s like domesticating a wild animal. They want to take a thoroughfare (anti-pedestrian in nature) and whip it into South Alamo Street in Southtown. It can be done, but how would it feel? Would it feel loose and carefree like Southtown? … If I were running the show, I’d put all of my energy into River North…. Forget Broadway north of The Pearl for a few years. Maybe then River North’s growth momentum will spill into neighboring Midtown Brackenridge. And maybe then the massive undertaking won’t be necessary and drivers will eventually pause for pedestrians because they want to, not because they’re being told to.

A commenter responds by comparing Broadway to South Congress in Austin. South Congress is also a major arterial, but feels much more pedestrian friendly, and has a lot more development.

Take a look at Broadway:

Broadway Street in San Antonio

Broadway Street in San Antonio

… and South Congress:

South Congress in Austin

South Congress in Austin

Both streets are arteries, and will never be as pedestrian-friendly as South Alamo, but reducing the street to four lanes, adding some on-street parking, and encouraging pedestrian-scale retail would make a world of difference. If Broadway additionally had a strong connection to Brackenridge Park — which is currently invisible from the street — I think there would be a fundamental shift in awareness and consequently in the use of the park, the waterway, and the street. Hence, SARA’s involvement.

Offering incentives for developments like Pearl — and for increasing its housing capacity — are, I think, good uses of tax money. But with Pearl and 1221 Broadway now anchoring Broadway on the south end of the park, it is time to bring the park to the street and make the street walkable. This area of Broadway has some well-established businesses and restaurants, but still feels lifeless. It is crying out for the infrastructure improvements that would allow it to really function as a useable street, rather than the highway that it currently is.

Another issue worth discussing is safety. A report on street safety just came out in the Journal of the American Planning Association, which used San Antonio to research street design and safety [free PDF download here] for motorists, cyclists, and pedestrians. Interestingly, the authors found that the streets that are most safe for motorists are also most safe for pedestrians and cyclists. Those streets are not big arterials like Broadway. They are the streets with lower speeds, more on-street parking, and street-oriented buildings that create a “sense of visual enclosure.”

The study shows why the idea that motorists will suddenly want to slow down for pedestrians on a huge, six lane highway because of the momentum of the Pearl development is just wishful thinking. It also shows why a cyclist quoted in the article, who fears that eliminating lanes and lowering the speed limit would make Broadway less safe for bikers, is wrong. Build a street like a highway, and people will drive it like a highway, thus reducing awareness of potential traffic conflicts, and also reducing ability to respond quickly to avert accidents.

A plan that would simultaneously forge a stronger connection between one of San Antonio’s great urban parks and the city around it, increase traffic safety, encourage development, and connect downtown more strongly to Alamo Heights seems like a win-win-win-win to me.

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1 Comment to Bringing Brackenridge Park to the street

  1. If one can develop Broadway into an area as inviting as S. Congress I am all for it! I don’t think SA will ever be as bike and pedestrian friendly as Austin but I do see it moving in a positive direction. It will be interesting to see where all of this ultimately leads…ends.

  2. Pam on April 19th, 2011

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Scattered Work is a blog about San Antonio, place, and planning by Ben Judson.

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