Strong Towns recently issued a challenge for its readers to walk to the grocery store. The idea is to get out of the car and experience this essential activity from a different perspective that doesn’t involve driving, whether it be walking, biking, or taking public transportation. There will be more of these “Strong Citizens” challenges and the hope is to involve increasing numbers of people in everyday ways to make our communities stronger places. If you have a Strong Citizens idea, you can submit it here.
I’m well situated to walk to the grocery store because my neighborhood makes it an easy choice. Notice I didn’t say “I’m lucky to live near a grocery store”. Living in a neighborhood with a high walk score and low car dependency was very much a conscious choice, a lifestyle choice. I would go as far to say that I choose the kind of place I’d like to live, then choose a job in that place or as nearby as possible. This strategy allows one to be rooted in the community, rather than having little ties to the neighborhood because the experience of it is always behind the wheel of a large automobile.
Our nearest grocery store is a Publix about 1/3 of a mile from our condo building. It’s a pleasant walk and the easier route is to walk along Rosemary avenue through CityPlace, a New Urbanist mixed use development which offers a covered arcade with outdoor fans along much of the walk, and pretty good shade trees.
That would be the easy way out, though, and I figured it would be more interesting to blog about the walk taking another route along a lesser street, Fern Street. Fern suffers from a lot of deficiencies: Too wide, curb radius at Quadrille are insanely huge, lack of shade tree cover. It’s not as important in the dry season, but when it’s wet season in South Florida (the other half of the year), walking is a real struggle through the molasses-like humidity and heat. This is the street that most folks need to take, because many of the residents of downtown live on the east side of Quadrille Boulevard, a major arterial and divider between east/west downtown. Due to the impending street closures at Datura and Evernia Streets for the All Aboard Florida rail station being built, Fern becomes that much more important as a connection for people walking and bicycling from the east side of Quadrille to get to the Publix, the only downtown supermarket.
Leaving my residence, a nice row of live oaks along my building is really starting to mature, planted around the time this building was completed I’m certain. The crossing over Quadrille Blvd is downright treacherous, with cars averaging 35-40 mph, and never stopping for pedestrians in the painted crosswalks. Raised crosswalks would have made a world of difference here and actually elevated the pedestrian to a position of respect where drivers might actually stop. I’ve been told sight line requirements also prohibited the City from planting trees between the roadway and the sidewalk, which is best practice for urban planning as it provides a physical barrier between speeding cars and vulnerable human beings on foot, not to mention psychological benefit of feeling safer. It’s just nicer. But it couldn’t be designed appropriately since this is an FDOT road and FDOT can’t tell a highway from a highline.
There’s no light at Fern Street to cross Quadrille Blvd, so you’d better be fast getting to that pedestrian refuge island in the median because the cars ain’t stopping. Not the easiest task for the many senior residents living nearby who walk here everyday. If you want to cross at Hibiscus Street at the light, you may need to walk several blocks out of your way, depending on where you live. Once you make it to the light, you’ll discover the pedestrian button is broken. And even if it did work, you have to contend with left-turning and right-turning cars into your path in what is a very poorly lit intersection. Once you make it to Fern, pray for trees to be planted as you walk the last couple blocks to the corner where the Publix is.
There it is: Nirvana. Raised intersections, curbless, gutter in center of street, brick pavers make Rosemary Avenue a walker’s delight. Publix is well placed at the corner, with an entrance onto the street as well as from the back parking lot, which is brilliantly concealed by being built below grade. Ample shade trees (live oaks) make the blocks on CityPlace a fantastic public space.
This walk is really the tale of two streets: One maintained by private property owners, the other by the City. The former is comprised of CityPlace and the right of way adjacent to my condo building, which is required to be planted and maintained by the building. The latter is city right of way where redevelopment hasn’t occurred yet – pretty much all the pictures that show poor conditions in the public realm. Even excellent Rosemary Avenue isn’t spared – the City still maintains the trees along it, and they are stunted live oaks that will never reach their potential.
This post probably sounds very critical at this point. It is because I know the area well because I walk it almost daily, and I’m passionate about making it better and safer. I still choose to walk to the grocery store nonetheless. Most of the time I bike there because it makes it that much easier and fun. With an upcoming project slated for Fern Street, there is hope Fern will become a much better street in the near future for walking to the grocery store. How does a street get better? Here’s what we said after Victor Dover’s talk in May:
Who leads in street design? Government. Once a street is designed as a place and investors have certainty, private investment will follow. So much of our public realm is utterly depressing that it does not provide a platform for long-term value, but rather short term gains. Good streets are a public good with benefits that accrue to the citizenry at large and cannot be privatized. Only local government can do this job; in fact, it is at the core of what good local governance is all about. I asked Dover what are some of the best investments a local government can make to provide a quality street, public investments that will attract people and private investment? Street shade trees and bicycling, he said.
Walking to the grocery store could be a pleasure, adding to the placemaking potential of West Palm Beach, rather than a challenge. We just need to make the small incremental steps to get there, starting with planting shade trees in the right of way, fixing lighting issues, and repairing pedestrian crossing buttons and timing.