Grape Street Plaza, Revisted

In my most recent post, I detailed what I saw as the problems with Fern Street. In short, Fern Street has unsafe, confusing intersections that aren’t friendly to pedestrians, a lack of urban plazas and wide sidewalks, and a design that pushes drivers onto Fern Street to drive through the neighborhood when 30th Street, immediately to the west, is better designed for car traffic. I proposed some solutions with the goal of solving all these problems at once by replacing roadway with urban plazas and parks to nudge cars over to 30th Street. This would result in less through-traffic on Fern Street (while still allowing access for locals and the shops) with the added bonus of creating a walkable urban center of our neighborhood.

I was excited to see that our local council member, Chris Ward, listened to the community and asked for funding to create a part of this project, an expanded Grape Street Square, in his budget priority memo:

This is great news. But as I’ve discussed this project with the community and thought about it some more, I think the design that has been floating around isn’t quite right. As you may remember, the idea is to close Grape Street between Fern and 30th Street to expand the existing Grape Street Square. I’ve highlighted the block in this (rough) sketch in green, with sidewalk expansions in blue:

There are two problems I see with this design. First, I’ve been told the owner of the property to the north, The Bottle House, does not support the plan and wants to keep the existing parking. This makes any change very difficult, if not impossible. Even if we could persuade the owner, however, I see another problem. One of the issues we were trying to solve was that the existing street design pushes too much traffic onto Fern Street. It would be better if we could get a lot of the cars over to 30th Street, which is wider. But if we close Grape Street on that block, we make it literally impossible for cars to get from Fern Street over to 30th Street. It undermines one of our main goals. Additionally, Grape Street Square as it currently exists is somewhat dead a lot of the time. The Big Kitchen is there and there are some tables, but none of the businesses really activate the space. The local businesses there are great, but they aren’t the type to flow out onto the square. If we want a lively urban square with enough traffic to avoid it being taken over by homeless people, we need restaurants and shops to face the plaza and really use it.

So how can we fix this? We keep the same idea but shift the shape of the plaza to create a design nudge to keep cars off of Fern Street. It turns out Grape Street is a natural dividing line between different types of buildings on Fern Street: south of Grape, the existing design and zoning switches to residential with a few small shops. If we can block cars from going south on Fern, we can transform the street into a quiet residential haven. That’s a benefit for our current residents on that street.

We also have a new, vibrant business right on that corner, Fernside. If we can pull that bar and restaurant outside, we can add some energy to the space. So let’s close the southbound lane of Fern Street at Grape Street to create a new plaza with room for an outdoor patio at Fernside. We can keep the northbound lane open to avoid cars being trapped in a dead end. If we also expand the sidewalk on the other side, the great Italian restaurant Piacere Mio can also have an expanded patio. To keep cars from coming over to Fern Street from the west, we can also close the south (eastbound) lane of Grape Street to expand the existing plaza. Altogether, it would look like this:

The result would be a massive expansion of the current square with the added bonus of helping two great local businesses create great outdoor patios we all can enjoy while supporting our local businesses. It would also simplify the intersection by avoiding too many turning possibilities. Think about how cars would operate with that design and how much simpler it would be.

Ideally, we can also convince the owner of the Target lot to shift the proposed new building to the south end of the lot to face the street here. With the right design, this could be a vibrant new village corner to serve as the heart of our neighborhood. The end result would (1) enhance the residential nature of Fern Street south of Grape, (2) expand opportunities for our local businesses to create engaging outdoor spaces, (3) make the entire area more walkable, and (4) actually be possible to pull off.

I’m sure there are some people that will be concerned about the effect on traffic and accessibility. I totally get that. So why don’t we just try it out with some paint and moveable planters and benches? Let’s move fast and get something in place for summer. It would be relatively cheap to implement and if it’s a flop, we can take it all down and go back to the way things were. If it’s good but not great, we can tweak the design. And if it’s a success, we can start the planning process with the City to put in a permanent solution. Rather than committing to a years-long project planning process before we know what the result will be, let’s be flexible and experiment.

I think this option would be a superior design that is within the realm of possibility. Let’s give it a shot.

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