Can Parole Ever Be Anything But An Inside Out Mall?

Almost ten years ago I wrote a piece on mobility in the Parole area in which I highlighted how the built environment goes from the human scaled environment of downtown Annapolis to a mega scaled “Smart Growth” development at Parole Town Center (sorry I categorically refuse to use their faux Anglo term Annapolis Towne Centre because it is neither). I intended to explicitly write more about this at the time but have only hinted at the issues from a mobility and Strong Towns standpoint in things I’ve written since. It’s now time to pick that back up, since the draft Parole Town Center Master Plan (2021) has just be released for comment by Anne Arundel County. There is so much to say about the area and specifically the plan, but I’m going to constrain myself to a few examples of the mobility discussion as I have submitted what is written here as feedback to the plan.

But first a few comments for context about the Parole area and the Town Center development in particular. In the recent past, since the Parole Plaza opened in 1962 when it went from sleepy rural land outside Annapolis to a developed retail center(s), it has been a poster child of the post WWII autocentric development pattern, the Suburban Experiment as Strong Towns calls it. Not only is there the mixed use Parole Town Center development that replaced the defunct Parole Plaza in the mid 2000s, but also the Annapolis Mall (which essentially killed the Parole Plaza, a feature of the suburban experiment), but also Forest Plaza (the old Hechinger Plaza), Festival at Riva and Annapolis Harbor Center (which it is literally impossible to walk to) in addition to other types of strip mall style developments. These commercial centers are all bounded by highways (US 50, MD 665) and principle/minor arterials that are typically 2-10 lanes (ie STROADs) that cater primarily to moving high volumes of cars quickly.

Road Network surrounding Parole from the Draft Master Plan with my annotations of the major commercial centers.

The last two Anne Arundel County General Development Plans (2009 GDP and Plan2040) indicate this is one of the areas where development in the county should be focused and as a result there is a lot of new (needed!) higher density housing, notably along Admiral Cochrane Drive and the Maris building on MD 450 as well as the housing units included in the Town Center development.

I mention all of this as context and to explicitly say that intensifying the area beyond the historical low density commercial strip typologies IS a good thing for the county. And more to the point that I have no criticism of people’s choices to shop or live there. If that works for you, that’s really a personal choice to make and not mine to criticize even if they might not be the choice I would make. Everyone’s situation, requirements and desires is different and vive la difference! It’s also easy to look back on the modern history of the area and criticize the planning dogma of the time that resulted in the autocentric built environment; hindsight is 20/20 and at the time this was the next great thing. This history of the area is similar to many other places in the country and is a very long discussion that those immersed in Strong Towns principles are familiar with, but too much of a rat hole to go down here. That said, as the area intensifies, county planning efforts (essentially regulations) that guide the development into the future need to be periodically reevaluated in order to adjust to the current cultural and economic climate. This brings us back to the Draft Parole Master Plan.

The plan in general is very conventional. Not necessarily a bad thing, rather just the nature of the beast. While I’d love to see a more bottom’s up view (the subject for a future piece about what do do with the Annapolis Mall as it falters), there is nothing I can do to change anything fundamental about this process, it’s a hardwired system driven by state/county planning law and modern finance systems. We as citizens can provide feedback, but only within the system that this plan is written and implemented, so the rest of this piece is feedback on their mobility goals and implementation of those goals especially as they relate to the land use goals. As we all know, mobility and land use are flip sides of the same coin and that’s where incoherence between the narratives of each goal comes in. In my opinion, they get the vision right for the area:

One of the key principles of Smart Growth is the creation of walkable neighborhoods, with safe and convenient facilities created through mixed land use, compact design and street design that makes the experience enjoyable. The Vision for the Parole Town Center calls for the area to be both walkable and bikeable, with a “safe, pleasant bicycle and pedestrian network [offering] alternatives for traveling within and around the area.” Public input into the Parole Master Plan and the Parole Mobility Study reveals a strong desire for improved connectivity for both bicycle and pedestrian networks and more safe roadway crossings for walking and biking. While the 1994 Parole Urban Design Concept Plan emphasized the creation of a pedestrian-friendly system of streets and public spaces linking different areas of Parole, there remain significant gaps in the bicycle and pedestrian network.

These are two of their stated goals vis-a-vis land use and transportation:

Goal BE2: Promote vibrant, high-quality development of attractive and human-oriented buildings, sites and public spaces in the Parole Town Center for opportunities to live, work, learn and play without the daily use of a car.

Goal BE4: Provide a well-maintained multimodal transportation network that is safe, efficient, environmentally sensitive and provides practical and reliable transportation choices and connections for all users.

The main complaint I have with the existing and planned Parole area as enumerated in the document is that it is basically an island surrounded by highways and arterials that provide through traffic around the area (US 50, MD 450, MD 2, MD 665, Forest Drive and Riva Rd primarily), which essentially renders any changes inside the area moot with respect to fundamental mobility and housing goals. For example:

Internal connections are good but not enough.

Ultimately, a place like Parole Town Center which is touted as an example of “Smart Growth” is really just an inside out suburban mall with some housing. Yes, it is mixed use and walkable inside the boundary, but it still for all intents and purposes requires access to it via automobile, unless you are a cycling nutball like me and take the lane on the arterials; not for the faint of heart. Is that really “smart” in the larger context? Much of the “Smart Growth” efforts in the area suffer from this (the subject a future post).

Here is where the incoherence between the two major plan goals occurs. This existing constraint (surrounded by highways and arterials) will not change as indicated in the section 4.4.2 Transportation Standards Statement 2 because these roads services vast parts of the county:

Adequate Public Facilities (APF) standards for roadways in the Parole Town Center should be tailored for the urban context. In general, APF requirements restrict development that cannot meet defined standards for mobility and ensure that all development projects contribute a fair share to the effort to maintain adequate traffic capacity in the area. Within the Parole Town Center, consider whether urban levels of congestion should be acceptable at some locations and/or at peak travel times in order to accommodate the development densities envisioned in the Town Center; however, regional through traffic should be able to flow through the Parole Town Center in a reasonable amount of time on roads designated for that purpose.

(my emphasis added)

If that emphasized statement is adhered to as we all know it will be – there is zero appetite for turning any surrounding arterials into a human scaled streets – intersection enhancements as outlined in the plan will accommodate people in a slightly less hostile autocentric system. I understand the reasoning for maintaining the arterials and can’t say I disagree with it necessarily, but the narratives of the goals are incoherent. Ultimately, unless something very different is done, the stated goals of making the Parole area a truly people centric urban place that is accessible and connected to the surrounding areas without an automobile will never be achieved.

The plan makes one small nod in this direction in section Underpass Treatments, but with only the mamby pamby language “could ultimately transform these areas into desirable places”:

As major limited access highways traversing the Parole Town Center, US 50 and MD 665 create significant challenges for connectivity between the different parts of the Parole Town Center, with local movement across these corridors limited to four points. Three of these crossings are underpasses that create unique challenges for bicycle and pedestrian movement. With constrained space, traffic noise, and a hard concrete character, these spaces become uninviting and dissuade bicycle or pedestrian use. Special underpass treatments at the US 50 underpasses at West Street and MD 2, and the MD 665 underpass at Riva Road, can improve the pedestrian or bicyclist experience in these spaces and encourage their use to move through the Parole Town Center. Safe bicycle and pedestrian facilities through these areas should be enhanced with innovative artistic design treatments such as bold murals, colorful and decorative lighting, and other artistic elements as appropriate to generate a stronger sense of place in Parole. Numerous considerations would need to be settled, including identifying responsibility for cost and capacity for installation and maintenance; compliance with all standards for traffic control devices; and ensuring there are no adverse impacts to the bridge structure or its maintenance. Such efforts would need close coordination with MDOT SHA, but further exploration could ultimately transform these areas into desirable places.

(my emphasis added)

Paths in underpasses or tunnels are very hard to implement in a way that is positive. Typically they are either loud and uncomfortable at best or dank and dangerous at worst and are to be avoided. What you end up with is an experience similar to the “pedestrian friendly” diverging diamond that Chuck Marohn lampooned so many years ago (and was one of the first Strong Towns things I ever saw and worth, eh hem, the chuckle to watch).

While I typically am not a fan of bike and pedestrian bridges because they are extremely expensive and often circuitous, the only way to achieve these two main plan goals simultaneously is construct grade separated infrastructure that connects networks outside the area to the area, essentially “flying over” the arterials in a congruous manner that is safe and pleasant for users. It offends my Strong Towns sensibilities to even suggest this, but like I said earlier, I can not change the boundary conditions of the problem, so this is as good as it get if I want to have input.

There are some examples of infrastructure like this in the US and in places like the Netherlands where they do more than just pay lip service to alternate transportation modes. This is what is what is needed here.

A most basic implementation is similar to bridges over arterials on the Pinellas Trail in St Petersburg FL. This is typically what would be constructed in the US. It is minimal but does achieve the grade separated goal and these are contiguous, safe and pleasant to ride, run and walk over.

Street View Link:

In the Netherlands on high traffic volume arterial roads (but much less than say on MD 2), they have shared use paths paralleling the arterials. The US is moving in this direction, but a key difference is how crossings are treated. In the Netherlands they are moving to “uninterrupted shared use paths” that bypass the level crossings at high volume roundabouts. Something like this could be used for example with a roundabout between Town Center and Forest Plaza or on Riva Rd instead of traffic lights and at grade crosswalks.

Perhaps the most Gucci of grade separated infrastructure is In Eindhoven Netherlands. Not only is there is a bike roundabout over a busy arterial intersection achieving all the goals, but it is really interesting from an aesthetic standpoint. Placing something like this atop the MD 2/450 intersection would allow both aforementioned plan goals to be achieved. Spokes off this roundabout could be connected to the Poplar trail leading to Downtown Annapolis, north towards the hospital, to the Maris building and into Town Center in a safe, pleasant and rather spectacular way.

This is an expanded version my feedback to the plan that includes more background and context for readers that are not as intimately familiar with the plan. While I think there are county planners (and the planners on their consultant team) that understand what is being suggested, it will be interesting to see whether they will acknowledge that such radical (for the US) infrastructure is needed to achieve the stated goals or whether they punt and leave mobility as lip service as currently written. Ultimately this will determine whether the Parole area stays as one huge inside out mall or becomes the desirable urban place.

I have to end this piece by indicating how conflicted I am about making recommendations like this. Of course if I could waive my magic wand and remake the country or even just the county in the Strong Towns mold overnight so that we would not have a need for such a heavy handed response to the dominant STROAD mindset of most transportation professionals, I would. But “shyeah and monkeys might fly out of my butt“… While I think there is little chance these kinds of suggestions will ever be implemented (too “out of the box”, low priority and lack of funding for construction and maintenance, and frankly would be a waster of money), the exercise herein is worthwhile because it illustrates the outcomes our current transportation policy and how at odds it is with our stated goals of creating places worth caring about and how impractical and expensive it would be to do without changing anything else. In places like the Netherlands they have made those choices and changes and while the same infrastructure might be just as expensive there, it’s built judiciously as the right tool for the job. We have a lot to learn about the perverse incentives of policies we just take for granted and hopefully this post at the very least brings these to light.

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