Just weeks after the release of Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares: A Context Sensitive Approach, CNU and ITE teamed up to host a two-day workshop that served as the kick-off event of a longer pilot effort to apply the manual to the challenges of a real city — Elgin, IL. In addition to helping Elgin tame key streets and turn neighborhoods into valuable destinations rather than pass-through zones, CNU seeks to incorporate lessons from Elgin in creating models for applying the manual’s solutions in cities across the country. The project is supported by the City of Elgin.
One of the manual’s breakthroughs is its acknowledgment that urban thoroughfare design should closely match urban context. It is the first such manual to prescribe specific design variations for each thoroughfare type such as boulevard or avenue across each of the six zones of the rural-to-urban Transect.
A onetime industrial powerhouse famed for being home till 1964 to the world-famous Elgin Watch Company, Elgin proved to be an ideal setting for the pilot, in part because of its full range of contexts. “Elgin has distinct areas from different historic periods,” explains CNU President and CEO John Norquist. “It has a 19th-century walkable urban core with small blocks and high intersection densities. It has post-war suburban zones as well as more recent exurban areas. These latter two areas exhibit low connectivity and residential density. Elgin also enjoys an abundance of undeveloped land within its boundaries. All of these areas hold opportunity for implementing the ideas and standards promoted in the ITE/CNU guide.”
Just as important in making the city a good match for the project was the enthusiasm of Elgin Mayor Ed Schock and his staff for enhancing the urban character, value and livability of their city using new urbanist principles. “We’re thrilled that we’ve been selected to be the site of this case study,” Mayor Schock said in opening the workshop, whose participants included city planners and top development staff as well as CNU’s Norquist, ITE Deputy Executive Director Phillip Caruso, new urbanist transportation engineers Lucy Gibson and Norman Garrick and Ty Warner, a top planner at the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. The manual and assembled experts were like answered prayers, he related. He and his administration have struggled with state and county departments of transportation and seen “the imposition of designs that not only have not added value, but they’ve actually stifled and inhibited commercial development and industrial development in the interest of just moving cars. It’s been very frustrating,” he said.
After presentations on the latest efforts to upgrade planning in Elgin and on the contents of the manual, the focus of the workshop turned to two areas of the city where the city’s development plans conflict with existing infrastructure (and future infrastructure anticipated by the state and county).
* One is the former site of the watch maker, where the company’s abrupt departure from 35 acres near downtown led to the building of a strip mall and surface parking lot on a massive superblock. A sprawling riverboat casino complex followed on another nearby watch company parcel. Through discussions involving all participants, manual-based design recommendation included parallel parking on both sides of the neighborhood’s major perpendicular thoroughfares, curb extensions to reduce turning speeds and pedestrian crossing distances, and narrowing of four-lane streets to three lanes with one shared turning lane. More ambitious planning changes such as extending public streets through superblocks should be considered to support the changes to existing streets, participants agreed.
* Another study area included an east-west street Route 20, a 2.5-mile stretch of which the state DOT previously converted to a grade-separated highway to be used in “bypassing” Elgin. The highway obstructs dozens of previous perpendicular street connections, barring homeowners from park land and other amenities that is just blocks away, in some cases. And even in stretches of Route 20 west of the “bypass,” state and county transportation officials continue to demand designs such as looping frontage roads and right-in/right-out only property access that prioritize vehicle flow over the needs of business, the creation of place and the safety of pedestrians if they’re bold enough to venture there. In addition to design changes such as converting the bypass to a boulevard with ample street connections and creating a multiway boulevard for the stretch further west to balance local and regional needs, the experts emphasized the importance of formal master plans that express a clear vision to all constituents, including state and county transportation officials, of the context the city desires. Since the DOTs grant the city more flexibility in existing “urban” areas near downtown, the city should be clear in defining exurban areas as equally “urban” in intended character, according to recommendations.
“The city knows that they want attractive, fully functioning urban places — they just don't have the array of tools needed to get the type of places they want,” reports Garrick. “The ITE/CNU manual is one such tool that can start to bridge the gap between what we want as a society and what we are currently building.”
“Applying the manual in Elgin has been a fascinating exercise,” reports Gibson. “The Elgin Pilot will be a great companion resource to help inspire practitioners to use the manual to foster New Urbanism.”
Elgin Story Report: Renewing Elgin