The Transformation of ‘Main Street’ – Santiago, Chile

The following pictures show the transformation from late 1800′s to today of a 1/4 mile section (part of the Alameda de las Delicias) of the 8 mile long Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins in Santiago, Chile. The Avenue dates back to the founding of Santiago in 1541 and was later named after the Liberator of Chile, Bernardo O’Higgins. It was and still is the ‘Main Street’ of Santiago. In the 1820′s a section of the Avenue (about 1 mile in length) received a major face lift. This section was called the Alameda de las Delicias. Translated means ‘The delightful Poplar Grove’. It was called such because 4 rows of poplar trees brought from Mendoza, Argentina lined the edges of a grand pedestrian promenade. For much of the 19th century the Alameda de las Delicias was the place to see and to be seen for the Chilean Elite.


Fast forward 100 years and we see that this section of the avenue is still full of life. The photo above from 1925 and the photo below from 1930 speak for themselves. The public realm that encompasses everything between the faces of the buildings on either side of the avenue strikes the right balance in creating a great space. Let’s walk through it from the outside in. The buildings ranged from one to four stories high and lined up with one another which created for a pleasant pedestrian experience as one walked down the sidewalk. Each building had its own look and style. The first levels addressed the street with appropriately scaled, unique, and beautiful storefronts/office fronts. One can only imagine that the upper floors were a mix of residences and offices. The sidewalks along the buildings were wide allowing plenty of room for pedestrians as well as shops and cafes to spill out onto.

Parallel Parking was available on both sides of the 3 lane wide one way streets. This parking helped to create a safety barrier between auto and pedestrian. The Iglesia de San Francisco (completed in 1613) created a terminated vista along one side of the avenue adding interest and highlighting this beautiful historic church (labeled as #1 on photos). On either side of the promenade we also see electric trolley lines adding to the variety of transportation available at that time. The way the streets and trolleys are distributed across the public realm allows for a heavy flow of traffic without sacrificing the comfort and safety of the pedestrian.

And truly the highlight of this avenue is its wide promenade, still maintaining the 4 rows of poplars on either side as it did 100 years earlier. And spread throughout the promenade as a sign of civic pride are several national monuments/statues.

Now fast forward 20 more years to 1950 and we see a major transformation. One that accommodates for more auto traffic and parking and less for the pedestrian. The wide promenade with its 4 rows of poplars have disappeared and have been replaced with a much narrower green area which contains no sidewalks for pedestrians only crosswalks. The one way streets on either side have gone from 3 lanes with parallel parking on both sides to a 3-4 lanes with parallel parking on the building side only with additional perpendicular parking closer into the buildings. The electric trolleys are gone giving over to the more popular use of autos and buses. And several of the older 2 to 4 story buildings are gone as well and replaced with much taller buildings.

Now lets fast forward to today. The green space in the center has been further narrowed as well as fenced in with low metal fencing in some places to keep pedestrians out. The traffic lanes have expanded to 5 lanes on each one way street. And all the parking along the streets has been eliminated as they are now accommodated within underground parking garages throughout the area. The metro de Santiago was started in the 1970′s with one of its first underground lines now traveling under the Alameda de las Delicias.

By this time most of the original low-lying buildings featured in the 1925 photo have been replaced with taller/wider buildings. I’ve highlighted 2 of the buildings throughout these photos that have survived the wave of changes. They are (1) Iglesia de San Francisco mentioned earlier and (2) Casa Central de la Universidad de Chile built in 1872. And although not as easily approachable by pedestrians the national monuments/statues have also survived the wave of changes.

But it’s not all bad news. We have been looking at just the first quarter-mile of the Alameda de las Delicias. Now let’s step back another 3 quarters of a mile and look at what is left today of the remaining Alameda. At the top of the photo you can see the 2 surviving buildings I’ve been pointing out on each photo and as we move down the photo you can see the promenade starts taking shape again, narrow at first then widens back out as you continue down the Alameda.

I must end by reflecting back on the 1930′s photo of the Alameda. What an incredible photo! This is what many Main Streets today strive for in order to become a ‘Complete Street‘ once again. All the elements were there. With some slight adjustments the same Avenue of the 1930′s could again be the place to be seen and to see today (see photo below).

Here are my thoughts on those adjustments. For sure today a lot more traffic needs to flow through this Avenue, not just by auto but also by bus, metro, bike, and pedestrian. So I would first remove the parallel parking along the promenade and convert that lane to a dedicated bus lane (A) which is in line with the rest of the city that has recently created dedicated bus lanes throughout. Next I would remove the electric trolley. It hurts to say that but I would only do that because there is a high capacity underground metro line (B) that serves that purpose. And in place of the trolley lines I would create dedicated bicycle lanes (C). I would connect these bicycle lanes to the ever growing bicycle lanes being created throughout the city as well as develop a much needed network of bike sharing stations.

Now let’s go back to the street edges. I would keep the parallel parking along the sidewalks. This would accomplish 3 things; keep cars from driving to fast, help the businesses along the avenue to attract more costumers, and it provides a safety barrier for pedestrians utilizing the sidewalks. The final thing I would do is to encourage the businesses and shops at the first level to once again engage the avenue by creating appropriately scaled, welcoming, and interesting storefronts to draw in and retain the people (D).

The story and history of the transformation of Santiago’s ‘Main Street’, once a celebrated place but now more of a transportation corridor, is a much too common theme for many of our ‘Main Streets’. Let’s reverse the thinking before it’s too late and we lose the ability to salvage what remains of these once celebrated ‘Main Streets’ and start transforming them back into places we can again enjoy and be proud to call our ‘Main Street’.

- Jason Grover, Santiago, Chile, June 2012.

 

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