Should Second, Third and Fourth Avenues North and 13th, 14th, 17th and 18th Streets North downtown, which are presently one-way streets, be turned into two-way streets? This was the topic of discussion at the first public meeting held by the City of Birmingham to solicit comment regarding the possible conversion. Nearly 60 City Center residents, property owners and business people, as well as officials from the city and other agencies, attended the meeting, which was held Tuesday, Jan. 27, at the Regional Planning Commission of Greater Birmingham (RPC) downtown.
The conversion of the one-ways was recommended in the City Center Master Plan, updated in 2004 by Urban Design Associates of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The plan suggested that relatively high-speed one-way streets are less pedestrian-friendly than two-ways, are confusing for tourists and other drivers visiting downtown, and may discourage those visitors from finding their way back to retail establishments that they spot while whizzing by on busy arterials.
City officials stressed that no decision has been made to whether the conversion will be carried out. "There are no preconceived notions about this," according to Tom Magee, the city's Chief Planner. "We believe that there is a need to look at the feasibility and at the impacts, and that's what our consultants are doing."
James Brown, of Gonzalez-Strength & Associates, the local traffic engineering firm handling the study, and Virginia Sisiopiku, PhD, President and CEO of Tria, Inc., who is assisting in data collection and analysis, stated that the collection of the traffic information needed for the study -- including traffic counts, signal timings, and geometric data -- is complete. Brown and Sisiopiku also stated that they have studied the results of similar conversions in other downtown areas nationally.
"The engineering studies will be next," Brown said, "in which we will imput all the data in a model and see what happens currently and in the future, and then we will draft a recommendation to the city as to what we recommend happens." According to Brown, they will present their findings at the next public meeting, to be held in April or May. He said that the feasibility study should be complete by the end of the summer.
The public comment portion of the well-attended gathering lasted about an hour. While no one expressed outright opposition to the conversion, many of the attendees seemed to approach the plan with a certain skepticism. Several people, particularly downtown merchants and residents, expressed their fear that badly needed parking spaces downtown might be taken away during the conversion. Andre Bittas, the City's Director of Engineering, Planning and Permits, tried to dispell that concern. "Parking is essential," he said. "We're not going to decrease parking." Bittas and other officals made similar assurances at an earlier, informal gathering of downtown merchants and residents held on Jan. 15.
Several attendees asked whether the conversion of one-ways to two-ways could cause a drastic increase in traffic congestion during the morning and evening rush hours, when commuters are either pouring into the city and parking in large decks, or leaving those decks and fighting their way back to the expressways to return to the suburbs. Many drivers who use the Red Mountain Expressway, for example, often exit the expressway in the morning at Second Avenue North and return to the expressway in the evening on Third Avenue North, both of which are presently one-ways.
Pat Ballard, an attorney whose home and business are located on Second Avenue North, expressed tentative support for the conversion -- "I'm generally in favor of going to two-ways," he said -- but also expressed concern that the conversion could cause congestion on Third Avenue North. "Those kinds of issues are problems," Brown responded. "We have to look at each individual situation and make a call."
At least two area merchants expressed strong support for the conversion. Stan Blair of Blair Furniture on Second Avenue North said that people drive too fast on the one-ways, sometimes causing wrecks. "That's not the kind of atmosphere we need here," he said. "We need more of a small-town atmosphere."
"We need the flow of traffic slowed down," according to Leo Ticheli, a resident and property owner on Second Avenue North. "I'm in favor of the two-ways streets and slowing down the traffic, as long as you don't take parking away or subsitute decks for parking," he said.
Magee, Brown and Bittas urged those attending the meeting to put all of their comments in writing on the index cards or comment forms provided for that purpose, so the traffic engineering consultants would not miss anything while carrying out their analysis and making their recommendations. "Input is critical, and input from everyone, not just from one group," Bittas said. "We are trying to create a plan."
The city, Operation New Birmingham, the Birmingham Metropolitan Planning Organization and the RPC are the agencies sponsoring the feasibility study.