Building on Our Advantage

Shopping District

Further illustrating opening themes, many of the workshop leaders at “Building a Sustainable Future” advocated what I’ll call asset based development. Reiterating that downtown’s competitive advantage is a sense of place, they suggested strengthening that advantage by enhancing the pedestrian-friendliness of downtown districts.

Some of their recommendations were familiar, such as traffic signals, reduction of speeds (at 31 mph 37% of vehicle-pedestrian accidents are fatal, at 15 mph only 3.5% are fatal), and traffic calming. There were a few new twists, however, including rejecting the last 50 years of emphasizing vehicular transportation and remembering the 5,000 years of successful focus on pedestrians. Experience has shown that slower but distributed vehicular traffic actually produces shorter drive times and reduces vehicular casualties.

Communities on both coasts have found that green projects also enhance pedestrian friendliness. Replacing gray space with green space, moving buildings closer to the sidewalk and promoting mixed-use development have resulted in shoppers being willing to walk longer distances and to spend longer periods in shopping districts.

One presenter compared shopping by vehicle with shopping by foot. Typically, shopping by vehicle results in one planned exchange per trip. A pedestrian shopping trip results in one planned exchange and possibly a dozen unplanned exchanges, including some social exchanges that may lead to a future commercial exchange.

Seattle is using these concepts in their Comprehensive Plan, zoning ordinances, code enforcement, traffic planning, parking strategies and economic development. When Gary Nickels was elected Mayor, the city was experiencing an economic downturn. He convened an “Economic Opportunity Task Force.”

One of the first actions was to review and modify the commercial code. Both businesses and consumers wanted pedestrian-friendly districts. The City identified 37 mixed-use districts and began to waive code requirements that were recognized as undermining pedestrian-based commercial activity.

Seattle believes this approach has stimulated increased economic vitality in these districts. It also believes that as petroleum prices rise, these districts’ advantage over car dependent commercial districts will increase.

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