Saturday, Jun 23 2012 11:09 PM
By The Bakersfield Californian
At a time when talk of smart growth, downtown revitalization and walkable communities dominate the planning world, the idea of adding two more ribbons of asphalt to the 24th Street corridor in downtown Bakersfield is bound to attract a few righteous hoots and howls. The city and county now routinely require developers to incorporate smart planning strategies into development plans. Yet those strategies seem completely absent from the 24th Street project.
The recently unveiled plans call for widening 24th and 23rd streets between Oak and M streets, and improving access to the Highway 99 interchange just west of Oak Street. The most controversial section is where 24th bisects the Westchester neighborhood. Some of the concerns expressed by residents are typical NIMBY fare: depressed home values, more noise and graffiti. But the general sentiment that building a bigger road further divides a historic, tight-knit and overall charming downtown neighborhood shouldn’t be dismissed too lightly.
More and more studies show that walkable communities in urban centers aren’t just a trendy design concept but a rising demand in the real estate market. People today prefer smaller homes that are close to work and within walking or biking distance to shopping, work and other everyday needs. A Brookings Institution study earlier this year found that real estate values in metropolitan areas increase as neighborhoods became more walkable. A recent report by the National Association of Realtors found 56 percent of respondents wanted a home in a walkable community. And Forbes on Friday ranked “walkability” as one of 10 things that make a good home. Walkability “is becoming a key factor in the search process. There are entire websites, apps and algorithms that help people figure out how walkable their future home is,” the Forbes article said, noting that real estate website Zillow now has a walk score on its listings. Widening roads, building sound barriers and blocking off access on side streets, all of which the 24th Street project calls for, make communities less connected and less walkable. That’s not to say that improvements to 24th Street shouldn’t be undertaken. The corridor between highways 178 and 58 is already a de facto highway, with fast-moving, high-volume traffic that bottlenecks during peak hours. And the stretch has seen its share of pedestrian casualties over the years. Ideally, the roadway would be rerouted underground and solely dedicated to vehicles. This would create unlimited opportunities aboveground for better connectivity and revitalization. But that option was abandoned long ago due to cost. If the only solution is to widen the existing streets, it should be done in a way that accommodates pedestrians and cyclists, and enhances not just the corridor for the surrounding neighborhood but the entire downtown community. It should be innovative; it should make us proud. Communities across the United States and many in California have found ways to make the best of highways and busy arterials that run through the downtown areas, making them walkable and even aesthetically pleasing with pedestrian bridges or tunnels, wide sidewalks, medians, landscaping, and linear, parklike greenways. Fixing 24th Street should be about more than just adding capacity to an overloaded roadway. It should balance transportation needs with the needs of the vibrant, multifunctional city center that we want downtown Bakersfield to be.