Coordinating development lacking in East Columbia

Saturday, January 12, 2008 | 10:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:54 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

It is obvious in the selection of East Columbia EIS (Environmental Impact Study) of major street alternatives that no consideration was given to the development of viable neighborhoods. By slicing an improved Route WW across the landscape, there is no consideration given to existing and future neighborhood facilities. Fragments of urban development will be cut off from logical future elementary school attendance areas and the service areas of logical locations for future neighborhood parks.

As much as we talk about childhood obesity, greenhouse gases, and alternative transportation modes, we have not established an organizing principle for the city growth that would encourage walking for those most likely to do so in their daily activities. Instead of developing the growth of the city around sustainable and contained neighborhoods with accessible schools, parks and playgrounds, the proposed east Columbia roads will force small-scale developments to squeeze small subdivisions into the remaining land with its natural and man-made boundaries. Instead of encouraging school children to walk, the proposed road system increases the need to transport elementary kids to school. So rather than decreasing obesity and greenhouse gases with neighborhood design, we are working at cross purposes.

Before getting too far into the development of East Columbia, it may be helpful to reflect on the kind of neighborhoods we wish to create. Let me lay out some distinctive characteristics of a neighborhood conceived with “walkability” in mind. These characteristics are consistent with the “Columbia Metro 2020 planning guide” with a couple of notable exceptions: these proposed neighborhoods are larger in scale and they protect elementary schools, neighborhood parks and other community facilities from major roadways by placing them inside the neighborhood rather than pushing them to the outer fringes. The commercial establishments that thrive on traffic belong on the outer edges and at connecting points with other neighborhoods.

Size: The neighborhood should be large enough to support one elementary school. Actual size depends upon the minimum size of school local authorities will agree to build and the student population within a maximum walking distance of one-half to three-quarters of a mile. This typically means a neighborhood with a population of about 5,000.

Boundaries: The neighborhood should be bounded rather than bisected by natural or man-made barriers such as hills, rivers, railroad tracks or major arterials. No through traffic should penetrate the neighborhood.

Open Spaces: There should be sufficient park and playground space provided within the neighborhood to meet the needs of children of elementary and preschool ages. Natural features such as views, rock outcrops and significant vegetation should be preserved as much as possible for the common good.

Institution Sites: Sites for schools, parks and other institutions and facilities having service areas coinciding with the limits of the neighborhood should be grouped around a central point.

Internal Street System: The internal street system should be designed to fit the natural contours of the land, to provide attractive vistas, to slow traffic, to discourage through traffic and to facilitate access to neighborhood institutions and shopping facilities via secondary or collector streets.

Diversified Housing Stock: Each neighborhood should contain in appropriate locations a broad range of housing types consistent with local market conditions, to enable several generations of families to live in the same area and thus to contribute to neighborhood stability.

With these characteristics in mind, the plan to improve Route WW west of Rolling Hills Road to arterial status should be abandoned. It will cut an existing neighborhood in half, requiring students within walking distance to cross a major traffic flow on their way to and from the Cedar Ridge Elementary School. This repeats once again the wholly illogical practice of locating elementary schools adjacent to major arterials. This practice is intended apparently to provide quick vehicular access. But the result is that all access is slowed by the need to mount crossing guards, to post slower speeds in school zones and to motivate more parents to drive their children to school because of unsafe traffic conditions. Efforts to reduce childhood obesity are undermined by more children being bused or driven to schools too distant or too cut off by major traffic arteries to make walking practicable or safe. The increased traffic generated by the built-in need to drive more children to school serves inevitably to fatten school busing contracts and make yet another contribution to Columbia’s carbon footprint and global warming.

There are other reasons for downgrading the status of Route WW. Improving it as an arterial west of Rolling Hills Road will dump additional traffic into the Broadway corridor, an already congested part of the city. The vibrant but comparatively stable downtown district with its eating, drinking and entertainment establishments and specialty shops should be increasingly a place of pedestrian amenity, rather than a conduit for traffic headed for a growing west side commercial complex. This lack of refinement in development policy is reflected in the recent study to expand the capacity of Broadway to carry increased traffic loads.

An obvious need to provide supplementary access from the developing residential areas on the east side of the city to the west side commercial complex and to the north side of the newly developing Lemone Industrial Park is overlooked by the failure to consider extending Stadium Blvd. eastward to Route WW. Such an extension would also provide access from the eastern sections of Route WW to the commercial complexes at the Stadium/U.S. 63 and the Broadway/U.S. 63 interchanges. A study should be made to determine whether a reasonable alignment, with a minimum displacement of homes, can be found in a Stadium Blvd. extension to Route WW, possibly in a parkway along the southern fork of Grindstone Creek. Such a facility, along with the street and bridge improvements planned for the Lemone Industrial Park, could be financed with a tax incremental district based on the tax increments accruing in the industrial park and the proposed commercial districts at the Stadium/U.S. 63 intersection.

An alternative should be considered to the proposed extension of Stadium to Richland Road in favor of preserving a viable organization of neighborhoods. The connection of Stadium Blvd. to I-70 can still be made via an eastward extension of Stadium to Route WW combined with a north/south arterial provided at Rolling Hills Road.

It is the essence of sound planning to so locate elementary schools on the interior of neighborhoods and major arterials on the edges of future school attendance areas so that — upon full development — it is possible to have a city that is both accessible on foot and by car. Not much can be done about highways and schools already in place, but we can avoid compounding the problem by a closer coordination of new schools and new and upgraded roadways.

Sid Sullivan is a Columbia resident.

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