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Streetscape about safety, not just looks

April 17, 2013 - Safety was the main topic of discussion last week as the Oxford Village Council listened to an informational presentation regarding proposed plans to revamp the downtown area's streetscape.

"Lately, we've heard that the perception by the general public is the reason the DDA is doing this is to make the downtown look pretty," said Madonna Van Fossen, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority (DDA).

"Well, that's not it," she continued. "That's going to be one of the benefits of this streetscape. The reason we're doing this is because of the safety of the pedestrian."

Linda Davis-Kirksey, who was hired to provide grant writing services for the streetscape project, told council it's not a safe situation right now for pedestrians to cross M-24 (Washington St.).

She attended one of the Girlfriends Walk events and attempted to "cut across the street, not at the light."

"I about took my life into my hands," Davis-Kirksey said. "I got beeped at. Things were awful. I'm thinking, 'Boy, this is not cool.'"

"I about got killed going to buy some purses and some things . . . to support the community," she noted.

Making pedestrians and shoppers feel safe and calming traffic are the keys to making the downtown "economically viable," in Davis-Kirksey's opinion.

Village planner Chris Khorey, of the Northville-based McKenna Associates, Inc., explained to council some of the ways revamping the streetscape could make downtown a safer place.

One way is to change the road surface of the M-24/Burdick intersection from the standard asphalt to colored pavers.

"That type of change in the roadway has the effect of slowing down traffic," Khorey said. "It also has the effect of screaming at motorists that this is a focal point intersection.

"This is not one of the many traffic lights you're going to see between the Palace of Auburn Hills and Lapeer. This is something special. This is downtown Oxford. It's also saying there will be pedestrians, so keep an eye out."

Widening the sidewalks is another way to make pedestrians feel more comfortable walking along M-24.

"Those sidewalks near the main intersection of town are extremely narrow," Khorey said. "You're basically getting your ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) minimum and that's it."

He acknowledged that widening the sidewalks would mean eliminating less than 10 on-street parking spaces, but in return, pedestrians would get safer sidewalks.

Adding planters along the side of the roadway would create "a physical and psychological barrier between the traffic and the pedestrians," according to Khorey.

"Right now, in many places in the downtown, there is no separation between cars going 40 miles an hour and pedestrians.

Khorey told council he's heard that "people are scared to walk down Washington St. because they feel like they're just too close to traffic that's going too fast."

"This would physically separate people," he said.

Khorey noted how downtown Oxford has a "very wide roadway," so there's a possibility it could be converted from a four-lane to a three-lane road (including left-turn lane) with some room for bike lanes and additional on-street parking.

However, he explained that M-24 "may have too much traffic to make that type of change, which is very disappointing to me."

"But there are other changes that can be made to slow traffic while keeping up the same efficiency."

The biggest thing is finding ways to make motorists drive slower when passing through the downtown.

"If we slow traffic from about 35 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour, that means that drivers will take approximately 30 seconds longer to pass through Oxford," Khorey said. "The difference in terms of pedestrian and traffic safety is enormous. If we could slow traffic without snarling it, without causing gridlock, that's a positive outcome."

To make it easier for pedestrians to cross the road, Khorey talked about the possibility of constructing "bump-outs" – also known as curb extensions – at intersections to shorten the distance between corners.

He also mentioned the potential to build a small median in the road to give pedestrians a safe place to wait while crossing, so they don't have to travel the entire width of the street all at once.

Khorey suggested placing one of these medians between Lili's Diner and the Oxford 7 Theater so people can safely cross there.

Right now, there are two signs in that area warning pedestrians that crossing is prohibited in that area.

Those signs are "really not conducive to having a pedestrian-friendly downtown," Khorey said.

"When you're attempting to be a pedestrian downtown . . . you want to make things as easy as possible for the pedestrians," he explained.

Ultimately, Khorey indicated drivers have to be given visual cues that will make them want to slow down. "When drivers feel a little bit unsure of themselves, that's when they slow down the most," he explained.

On the other hand, Khorey said, "We don't want to do that too much because we are a thoroughfare. We've got people going from Lapeer to the Palace along this road."

But "right now, we've got an environment out there that is completely designed around getting cars through and we think that that's hurting us economically."

The goal of the proposed streetscape is "to try to even the score" between pedestrians and vehicles, Khorey said.

Councilman Dave Bailey noted that traffic going from Lapeer to the Palace of Auburn Hills "doesn't really have any choice" but to use M-24 and come through downtown Oxford.

"What alternate route are they going to take?" Bailey said. "We're going to have the traffic coming through regardless – the question is how slow? How does it feel walking on the sidewalk?"

Khorey added that some motorists may decide to stop and shop or dine downtown if they're going slow enough.

"We have a little bit of a problem with people blowing right through Oxford," he said.

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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