Residents in the Oak Park Community of Sacramento took to the streets last Saturday to address a major challenge — eliminating the stereotype that surrounds streets named after the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For those that are unfamiliar with the stereotype, streets named after King are often associated with poor, dilapidated, and predominately black neighborhoods. Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard through Oak Park is in rather poor condition , although it is certainly in better shape than some streets with the same name in other cities. However, Oak Park residents are determined to fix the street because they feel it is the “spine of the community” and essential to the community’s success, according to resident Brian Fischer. Not only do the residents want to make this street walkable and economically viable, they want it to be a catalyst for improving the image of streets named after King in cities across the US.
Last Saturday's walking audit was the second in a series of walks led by the non-profit group Walk Sacramento. The first audit was held on November 5, 2005 and focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard from Broadway to 14th Avenue (view the draft report – PDF). Sautrday's walking tour focused on MLK Boulevard from 14th Avenue to Fruitridge Road, an ambitious one-mile audit.
There were several areas for improvement that I and others identified during the walking audit. Below I suggest 10 improvements that I feel are critical for revitalization of the street and that could very well be implemented. They are listed in order of priority.
1. Add more crossings of MLK Boulevard on the southern portion of the street before Fruitridge Road. There are no safe crossings of MLK Boulevard for nearly a mile. Mid-block crossings with proper refuge islands, striping, and signage to enhance drivers’ awareness of pedestrians is necessary for this street to work.
2. Bury the utilities. The telephone poles are a source of blight on the street and enormous barriers on the sidewalks. Since there are no alleys that parallel MLK Boulevard, the only option is to move the utilities underground.
3. Reduce the lane widths to a maximum of 10 feet, preferrably less. In many spots the lane widths were 11+ feet — unacceptable in a high-pedestrian area (especially for school children). This will help calm the traffic and add space in the right-of-way for wider bike lanes, sidewalks, planter strips, or on-street parking.
4. Widen the sidewalks. Sidewalks should be at least 5 feet wide; however, 6-10 feet would be more acceptable. In this case, I would opt for 6 foot sidewalks and additional planting strips. The right-of-way may be too narrow in places to accommodate widened sidewalks and planting strips, so when space is limited, the need for wider sidewalks must be balanced with the need for planting strips, bike lanes, and on-street parking.
5. Add a planting strip with street trees large enough to create a canopy effect. The planting strip should be at least 6 feet wide. Street trees planted should be a variety of trees similar to those planted throughout East Sacramento. Where the street right-of-way prohibits a planting strip, some sort of buffer between the sidewalk and curb (perhaps decorative brick) should be used. If the sidewalk width is increased to 6 feet, the planting strip should be at least 4 feet wide before any additional widening of the sidewalk is considered. This will help keep pedestrians out of the “splash zone” and also save on construction costs.
6. Add street furniture and bus shelters. There are no places to sit and “people watch” along MLK Boulevard. Decorative or themed benches are much needed , as are bus shelters. Successful streets can become third places where people will come to socialize, but they need appropriate outdoor places to interact.
7. Reduce curb radii through various means. This can be accomplished many different ways — curb bulb-outs, pork chop islands, planting boxes, striping, etc. The streets of Midtown Sacramento have many examples of these features.
8. Add public and civic art and/or gateways. Although this is challenging, often costly, and requires strong organization and effort, public art and gateways could be a critical catalyst in the revitalization of the MLK Boulevard. Public art is a challenging addition to a neighborhood because of the politics involved in the choosing and approval of art. If local artists groups have a strong base and some political power, art in the public domain can become a reality. From what I gathered during our meeting, I think this can happen in Oak Park.
9. Widen bike lanes. This can provide additional safety for bikers, help to calm traffic, and provide an additional buffer between moving traffic and pedestrians. The fact that there are already bike lanes on the street is a very good start.
10. Provide on-street parking wherever possible. Contrary to what many believe, on-street parking is good and healthy for the street. We have to accept the fact that cars are going to be the primary source of transportation in lower-density places and so we must accommodate for them. Parked cars help create a “boxed-in” feel for drivers, often helping to reduce speeds. They also provide another buffer between moving traffic and the pedestrian. Additionally, they could help development by making it possible to allow parking requirement reductions for developers in areas where there is on-street parking. Parked cars actually make a street feel safer because it feels as if there is more activity on the street. (Many pedestrian-only streets do not work because they are too wide and empty. The ones that work are more narrow.)
Those 10 improvements are the easier pieces to implement, with the possible exception of adding pubic art and gateways.
Over the past several years, I have been involved in a number of walking audits, and this audit was one of the more challenging for reasons that I did not expect. When I walk through a place, I often get a feel about whether it has potential for redevelopment. I was thoroughly impressed by the enthusiasm the Oak Park citizens have for their community; their visions are outstanding and have real implementation potential. This is probably the most important piece of community revitalization. However, I saw a couple of significant barriers to “fixing” MLK Boulevard.
One is the fact that the street is residential in nature, with very few vacant lots. In order for a community to be walkable, there have to be places to walk besides just housing. There are a few commercial buildings on the street, four or more schools, several churches, and a community center. Besides the schools, these are not uses that generate high levels of pedestrian activity.
The most significant problem I saw was that nearly every residence had a six- to eight-foot tall fence in their front yard. While the common perception is that fences make single-family residences safer, I feel that they do the opposite. They send the message that this is a bad neighborhood, so bad that residents must fence their property to keep people out. Fences also contribute to a boxed-in feeling for pedestrians, and are considered to be blight. Most every fence we saw was built immediately adjacent to the sidewalk, taking away at least a foot of usable space on the sidewalk. With four-foot sidewalks and no planting strips (or furniture zone), this creates a very uncomfortable environment for the pedestrian and is not conducive to walking or socializing. Clearly, either the Sacramento City Code does not prohibit fences like these in the front yard (evidenced by the newly-built homes that had them) or the City does not enforce the Code.
The City Code dealing with fences needs to be amended. This will help prohibit developers of new homes from erecting them. I really do not know of a good solution for the rest of the fences. Maybe there could be some sort of collective agreement for taking them down all at once, perhaps with some private investment as incentive. I know it sounds harsh, but I really feel that if the fence problem is not remedied, the street will not be successful.
The cultural change of taking pride in the place you live is the hardest and slowest part of the revitalization process, but I think it is possible to effect this change in Oak Park due to its the strong community base. Changing the community’s image of MLK Boulevard will not be easy, because it has many problems and is well-established in its way. Fixing the street, however, is possible and can go an incredibly long way in improving community image. With the City apparently ready to invest $20 million in Oak Park, perhaps this will soon be reality.
The Sacramento Bee wrote an article about the walkabout that appeared in Thursday’s City section. You can see my arm in one of the photos – I am taking a picture of a telephone pole, the worst example of a telephone-pole-in-sidewalk that I have ever seen. You can view that photo and all 93 photos I took of the event in the photo gallery. Also, keep watching for the final report on Walk Sacramento’s website.