Tag Archives: Strong Towns OpEd

Can Art and Historic Preservation Coexist?

A version of this article When Public Art and Historic Preservation Clash appeared at Strong Towns on May 24, 2017.

Main Street Annapolis (wikipedia.com)

Annapolis is the historic capital city of Maryland and harks back to the Colonial days of the United States. The city’s core contains a lot of the historic fabric from the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s including historical gems such as the Maryland State House where the Continental Congress met in the 1780s, the William Paca House (1760s) and many others of lesser fame. While there was some significant demolition in parts of the city over time, fortunately the ravages of the urban renewal years did not gut any large portions of the core downtown and the influence of the automobile was minimal on the street size and configuration.  The preservation of the historical character is in large part due to the efforts of organizations such as Historic Annapolis and through Maryland and Annapolis Statutes as implemented by the city Historic Preservation Commission (HPC). Without these heroic efforts beginning in the 1950s and 1960s much more of the historic fabric might have been lost.

Fast forward to the present. Annapolis is generally a healthy and thriving city and is a very strong tourist attraction thanks to the aforementioned historic fabric. However, like many towns and cities, it struggles at times to keep the core areas thriving for locals beyond the standard tourist attractions. In addition to the historic Main Street area that is within the area governed by historic preservation rules, there is another close by area of West Street that has undergone quite a renaissance over the last 20 years with new shops and restaurants thanks to an innovative group of restaurant owners, artists and entrepreneurs who have coalesced the area into an “arts district”. This is due to there not being not a lot of scrutiny when this area was economically depressed. This redevelopment mimics reinvestment in cities where there is little regulation, as Andres Duany says “when government is not watching”. It’s page directly out of the Strong Towns playbook with events such as a weekly “Dinner Under the Stars” and the, “Chocolate” and “Fringe” festivals all organized at the grass roots level with great success.

Arts Festival on West Street (http://www.firstsundayarts.com/)

Compare these two approaches, one top down with codified rules and regulations at multiple levels of government and one bottoms up, with a “try lots of ideas and see what works” mentality led by hyperlocal citizens. When these two meet, in the case public art, there is clash of control.

While much of the “arts district” is outside the historic area boundary, there are a few buildings that are part of the arts district within the boundary and when one owner was cited for peeling paint, he enlisted a well known local artist to do the painting – with a mural.

Time Lapse – Tsunami Mural Annapolis, MD from Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

The response from the city was heavy handed, serving a court order to either repaint it or apply for a retroactive permit. While the HPC code does not specifically regulate paint it does regulate “architectural alteration”. This means the owner would have been completely within his right to paint it a non-historically accurate (whatever that is) color, but the fact that there was “art” in the image made it an “alteration”. After boiling away all of the legal minutia of this disagreement, it comes down to a control issue, not unlike those around Tiny Free Libraries. To be fair, the city says they might approve this particular mural, but they want make that determination.

From our local press:

“We choose not to regulate paint,” said Lisa Craig, the city’s chief of historic preservation, in October 2015, “but when paint gets to the point where it obstructs or detracts from the architectural characteristics of the building, then they (commission members) have to make a judgment call.”

And

Buckley [the property owner] sees it as an attempt to merge West Street’s historic nature with Annapolis’ artistic sector. “We look at beautiful cities all over the world in Prague and in Paris and these cities they make things work with historic buildings and they understand juxtaposition,” Buckley said Friday. “But I feel like we’re not getting that same thing here. So, as it became bigger than us, we decided we would stand up.”

Voices from both sides from a movie trailer “Cataylst” about the mural by Power Play Creations on Vimeo.

Beyond the specifics of this particular interpretation of the Annapolis historic preservation code, this situation is a prime example of two schools of thought on how to build great places, but with diametrically opposed approaches and represents the somewhat bi polar nature of Annapolis’s culture. Some resist change because change is negative and some encourage change because change is good.

For better or worse the court case – at least this edition anyway – was just resolved in favor of the city.

Tension between these cultures is certainly healthy as monocultures are fragile. But when the argument is more about control than substance, in my opinion the balance has shifted away from historic preservation’s original intent. Paint is truly ephemeral as the arts community showed in their cheeky response by staging a “mural funeral” when a second mural was cited by the city.

While historic preservation is critical for cities such as Annapolis, with all of the problems the Annapolis has, and yes, even though we are a small historic city we have many of the same problems larger cities have, spending money and effort on legal challenges is not effective solution to improving the city. Additional hurdles to revitalization based not on substance but control, especially those at the grass routes level, are the last thing the cities and towns need.

Raising the Interest and Reducing the Concern

Contemporary cycling in the United States is largely viewed by the public as a recreational endeavor. However, it was not always this way. For distances greater than that easily covered on foot, bicycles were the preferred mode of local transportation prior to the early 1900s when the automobile came into wider use. During the next half decade, bicycles were seen primarily as children’s toys. The 1970s and 1980s brought a new boom in bicycle sales for adult recreational purposes and this was augmented by the “Lance effect” in the early 2000s, introducing a large number of people to performance cycling.

As a result, most infrastructure built in the latter half of the 20th century was geared around this recreational aspect of cycling, primarily off road paths in parks, “rails to trails” efforts and even mountain bike facilities. It is only in the last 10 years that urban areas have started to look again at bicycles as part of their transportation strategy and to construct suitable infrastructure to implement it. By most measures these efforts have been fairly successful in increasing the numbers of transportation cyclists, but still not to a level of places like the Netherlands where there is upwards of 30% bicycle mode share. The United States will likely never achieve that kind of mode share if for no other reason than our systemic land use issues, but in areas where the land use patterns do support bicycle transportation, we can get to more modest shares like that of Portland (7+%). What actions can be taken take to increase this mode share?

Largest Gains

There are four types of transportation cyclists: Strong and Fearless (<1%), Enthused and Confident (7%), Interested but Concerned (60%) and No Way No How (33%). To this I would add a fifth group: “Unseen Bicyclists”, who have no particular interest in cycling other than as a nearly free mode of transportation that is faster than walking. In order to get to work they often must ride in inhospitable areas for cyclists.

In years past, transportation cycling in urban areas has included the three of the five smallest groups, personified by the bike messenger (Strong and Fearless), the racer who decides to commute (Enthused and Confident) and the guy riding the squeaky mountain bike on the sidewalk late at night (Unseen Bicyclist). Together, these groups never reach the critical mass/tipping point where transportation cycling would be seen as something normal people do. The question is how to encourage the largest untapped group (Interested but Concerned) to embrace transportation cycling as a way of life?

Infrastructure Is The Key

I use the word “infrastructure” here as it captures the Zeitgeist, but to be more precise, I mean the built environment that cyclists experience trying to get from place A to place B. Interested but Concerned cyclists who would definitely drive to a safe place to ride recreationally, first and foremost, need to feel safe in order to participate in transportation cycling. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition that, if not met, significantly degrades the return on investment of any infrastructure as it will not be widely used. Critics will point out that there s no demand, and thus a waste of money. The largest factor in achieving this perception of safety is separating cyclists from fast moving vehicles. An on road bike lane on a 6 lane arterial with speeds of 40+ mph, often the result of Complete Streets efforts implemented by state DOTs, while fine for a fast road cyclist, is not going to make the average Interested but Concerned cyclist feel safe.

md2 bike lane

On road bike lane on MD 2 in Edgewater, Maryland. I ride here often, but I am in the Strong and Fearless Group. (Google)

The second condition that must be met to entice Interested but Concerned cyclists is that the routes need to be direct and efficient from a time standpoint. Dedicated cyclists inherently like cycling as an activity and as a result are willing to “pay extra” in terms of time and effort to do it, but in order for regular people to take up transportation cycling, there has to be real value over other modes. Most recreational bicycle facilities that feel safe are often circuitous or if they are direct, require cyclists to stop at every cross street or curb cut or even worse require pressing a beg button and waiting a full light cycle, making the trip an annoying and time consuming process. As Strong Towns pointed out in the “Follow the Rules Bikers” piece, typically our cycling infrastructure is geared to automobiles, which puts bicycles on the same footing as cars. If there is no time saving advantage, why not just drive? That’s what the Interested but Concerned cyclist would do.

Residential neighborhoods with low and slow traffic offer acceptable routes for the Interested but Concerned cyclists and can be direct if the development pattern is a grid of streets with good connectivity. But so often local subdivision regulations or requests by residents close off streets to through traffic and once they are closed, very hard to reopen even for pedestrian or bicycle access. Yet, they can have a significant positive impact on the efficiency of a route.

victor parkway

Victor Parkway in Annapolis, Maryland has a fence between adjacent neighborhoods. The only way around is using a notorious five lane arterial that adds a half mile distance. It took a significant effort with the City of Annapolis to get even the pedestrian gate opened. It helps but is still unpleasant for cyclists. (Google)

Start With An Insider

A decidedly un-Strong Towns approach to getting Interested but Concerned cyclists engaged in transportation cycling would be to advocate for a huge pot of Federal transportation dollars and plan a perfect Shangri La bicycle network. Municipal governments often won’t do anything because of the perfect solution fallacy. They know this approach is not workable so anything incremental is rejected because it isn’t a complete plan and problems would still exist.

A better Strong Towns approach would be to work incrementally starting initially with a “do no harm” mantra and building on that to address the issues mentioned above. The number one action a municipal government can take to prevent further harm is adding a dedicated pedestrian/bicycle planner to the staff who has a seat at the table for any infrastructure development and maintenance projects. The singular focus of a subject matter expert who really understands the perspective of the Interested but Concerned, can point out bad designs before they are implemented. Additionally, the insider cultivating relationships with local cycling advocacy groups can be a force multiplier in this regard, utilizing a broad network of people who understand issues at a hyper-local level. This is the foot in the door that will provide internal advocacy for early input to projects. Collectively that will improve the infrastructure over time to raise the interest and reduce the concern in transportation cycling.

An Illustrative Project

I will end with a local example that highlights how a cycling subject matter expert might have prevented a disaster from happening. In Anne Arundel County, there is an on road bike lane along a well-traveled recreational route to view the Chesapeake Bay from Annapolis Maryland where I live. It’s essentially a 4-5’ shoulder with bike lane markings. Not great, but good enough to make the average recreational cyclist comfortable, and sadly one of only two marked bike lanes in a county with 4000 lane miles of road under its jurisdiction.

bay_ridge

Bay Ridge Avenue immediately south of Annapolis, Maryland. The driveway on the right is being expanded to accommodate a church expansion.

The expansion of a local church required a turn lane according to the County code. However, this situation was complicated by the presence of a park next door. The park has some recreational paths that are contained within the park and do not serve a transportation purpose in any way. The engineering company that did the design work is a respected regional firm, but the design that was approved by the County makes very little sense from a transportation cyclist’s point of view.

bike squeeze

The bike lane prior to the driveway was replaced with a turn lane. Although common when turn lanes are added, not a good situation for cyclists. But the most egregious change was after the driveway, where the bike lane was blocked with a concrete curb and only resumes after the curb radius where the park path exists to the road. Since virtually all cyclists will be going through, this presents an extremely dangerous situation for cyclists who can get squeezed into the curb by a passing car.

The design makes an assumption that due to the proximity of the park all cyclists are going to be riding on the path around the park – the standard recreational assumption. Because the County does not have a subject matter expert on staff, they assumed that extending the park path in lieu of the bike lane was a benefit, not a detriment. Anyone with local/contextual knowledge would have flagged this design as unresponsive to the typical cyclist pattern and it could have been easily corrected prior to construction with no adverse effect to the church by maintaining the bike lane straight through. Sadly, it was not seen until after concrete had been poured, making a correction difficult and costly.

Why I Ride A Bike

A shorter version also appeared as an Op Ed column in The Capital on May 11, 2016.

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland

Aerial view of Annapolis, Maryland (Library of Congress)

Let me get this out of the way: I am a bike guy. I love bikes, all kinds – transportation bikes, off road bikes, racing bikes and classic bikes.

But that’s not why I ride a bike for transportation.

I currently reside in Annapolis, the capital city of Maryland, a smallish city of about 40,000 people. The dominant view of cycling here is that it is an athletic or recreational endeavor. You know, “put the bike on the car and drive somewhere to ride”. However, Annapolis is ideal for getting around by bike. It’s compact, only eight square miles, and you can pretty much get to any part of the city and even the surrounding areas that are experiencing a lot of urbanized growth with a flat two or three mile bike ride.

Annapolis Map

Annapolis is very compact.

This is easily within the ability of most people. I ride my 1972 Schwinn around town because it’s a convenient and economical mode of transportation to accomplish my daily business of getting to the DC commuter bus stop for work, shopping, and socializing around town. But there are too few of us and we often feel like lone voices in the wilderness. Thankfully, many cities around the world and a growing number of cities in the U.S. are proving that bicycles can easily be a part of a modern transportation system. What’s missing here to make transportation cycling appealing for more than just the “Strong and Fearless” – or those who have no other choice – are the connecting off-road paths and bike lanes called for in the city’s excellent, but mostly ignored, bicycle master plan.

Bikes are cheap and save money. Despite this area having a very high median income, many residents in the city pay a disproportionally large portion of their income to own and operate a car, never mind multiple cars. Using a bike for around town trips can easily decrease the number of vehicles a family needs to have and saves wear and tear by using the car only for those trips that require it. Riding a bike for my daily needs saves thousands of dollars per year in my family budget. Relatively inexpensive bikes can easily haul a surprisingly large amount of stuff, require very little maintenance and avoid the city parking costs. And, bike riding if viewed as something regular people do, provides equity of access to our streets as Bike Law’s Peter Wilborn writes about in Charleston SC.

Bike towing a moth sailboat.

Yes, bikes can do real work. Extracycle makes great hauling bikes (I do not own one or have any financial interest in the company) and some awesomeness from a local Moth sailor.

Bikes are cheap for the city, too. A lot of the auto-based traffic here is short trips around town, which can easily be done on bikes. The city is geographically constrained by two rivers and the Chesapeake Bay and as a result land is extremely valuable. While the city is in reasonable fiscal shape overall, it has neither the means nor the land to widen roads for more cars. Development is a hot topic here, and the general opinion is we need to lock the door in the Party Analogy. It inevitably conjures the traffic “boogeyman” as the assumption is that an additional person equates to an addition car. But, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are many small bike projects the city could do that would have a high return on investment in mobility. We often hear that Annapolis is not affordable. With a good cycling infrastructure, we can support additional development and can attract younger people who will likely choose bikes for a significant portion of their transportation needs. It doesn’t take much of a shift to bikes to have a large effect on traffic congestion and amount of needed parking.

And finally, there has been a lot of discussion recently in various forums here about rampant speeding in the city. I believe much of this occurs because people spend so much time in their cars in traffic that they have become chronically frustrated, often expressing that frustration as impatience or even road rage towards other drivers, walkers and bike riders. Spending time on the other side of the windshield brings the perspective of non-drivers into clear focus. Everyday riding makes me appreciate the luxury when I do use the car, especially if the weather is bad or I am tired. As a result, I am much more relaxed and courteous behind the wheel when I drive.

May is National Bike Month and we should celebrate transportation cycling. If you are a recreational rider, throw a basket on your bike and make a few trips to the store; if you haven’t ridden in a bike in a while, dust off that bike in your garage or grab an old beater from Craigslist and give it a try. The more people ride, the safer it is for everyone and the more apparent it will become to city governments that bikes can perform real work.

alex_pline_bike (1)That’s why I ride a bike.

Alex Pline is Chairman of the Annapolis Transportation Board, Vice President of Bicycle Advocates for Annapolis and Anne Arundel County and when he jumps out of a telephone booth in spandex, rides with the Annapolis Bicycle Racing Team.