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Assignment: Connecting downtown Oxford

by CJ Carnacchio

March 28, 2012

For residents and visitors, downtown Oxford is a place for dining, shopping and entertainment.

But for a group of students from Lawrence Technological University (LTU), it's a place where they can take the skills and knowledge they've garnered in the classroom and apply them to the real world.

Eight LTU students appeared before the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) board March 19 to present their ideas on how to make the downtown area more accessible to pedestrians; more connected to other areas like the Polly Ann Trail, Scripter Park and the Oxford Lakes subdivision; and more attractive to visitors, particularly young folks.

"Oxford's not a fast-growing community, but it is a vibrant community," said LTU undergraduate Max Nykerk.

The students identified a number of issues and challenges faced by the downtown area and proposed a variety of ways to deal with each of them.

Connectivity for pedestrians

LTU undergraduate Vibha Kondur explained how her group examined issues such as the "intense volume" of traffic, noise and "the lack of retail diversity within the community."

"All of these challenges fell under the umbrella of the lack of connectivity," she said.

For instance, the Polly Ann Trail pedestrian bridge over M-24 forms a northern gateway to the downtown area, yet there's no incentive for trail users to leave the path and head south into the shopping area.

"There isn't really anything that's pleasing for the bicyclists to actually come off the trail and visit the DDA area," said LTU undergraduate Azher Matty.

Matty explained how existing businesses around the bridge, such the auto collision shop and heating/cooling/plumb ing company, are not appealing to trail users and are actually discouraging them from coming down and visiting the DDA district.

He added that even if folks wished to exit the trail, there's nowhere for them to stop and park their bicyclists.

Matty suggested extending the "street-side retail" businesses along M-24 toward the trail because right now, they're "pretty much just concentrated in (a) little area."

The students also proposed creating a bicycle lane along the north side of Burdick St.

Given the trail intersects with W. Burdick St., which runs straight through the heart of the downtown area, the bike lane would give users a natural way to get on and off the trail, yet still have easy access to dining, shopping, etc.

Matty noted that while the downtown and village have "plenty of roads," making it "easy" for vehicles to get around, "there's no real pedestrian-friendly roads."

But it isn't just the Polly Ann Trail that's disconnected from the downtown area. There's also the Oxford Lakes subdivision, which essentially forms the other half of the village.

LTU undergraduate Jonathan Dado told the DDA board that the "walking distance is pretty much impossible" from this subdivision to the downtown area.

Right now, there is no straight path linking Oxford Lakes and the downtown. Pedestrians must either use the safety path along Lakeville Rd., which becomes E. Burdick St., or take the other route, which involves going from Oxford Lake Dr. to E. Drahner Rd. to M-24, then heading north for about a mile-and-a-half.

That's why the students proposed constructing a pedestrian trail between the subdivision and downtown. It would be a little more than a quarter mile in length, which is definitely easy to travel on bike or foot.

"A lot of the youth would be able to use this to get to the downtown area," Dado said.

Downtown's noise problem

Dado explained one of the reasons downtown is so noisy is because "almost 90 percent of the buildings have a flat facade."

This intensifies the sound of traffic passing by, particularly large vehicles like gravel trucks. Sound hits the surface of the buildings and is then reflected and intensified.

"It almost becomes a trap because it's hitting off all the materials that are reflective," Dado said.

Dado noted how "there's not too many materials that are actually absorbing the sound" in the downtown area.

"The only thing that's absorbing the sound is the air," he said.

The students studied each of the building facades and found most are made of nonabsorbent materials that reflect sound. Examples are brick, which is 5 percent sound absorbent, and glass, which is 0.15 percent absorbent. He indicated the most sound absorbent materials on the downtown buildings are the awnings.

Dado warned the DDA board that something needs to be done to lessen the impact of the vibrations from the gravel trucks rolling through the downtown.

Because of those vibrations, downtown's historic buildings "are actually in danger of cracking within the next few years if this continues to go on the way it is."

Dado suggested incorporating some sound absorbent materials into the building facades and told the DDA board he would pass along information on some examples.

Matty added that having larger, fuller trees in front of the buildings is another way to help "soften" the vibrations before they reach the structures.

More than just M-24

Instead of having all the businesses within the DDA district located along Washington St./M-24, the LTU students suggested using some of the village's alleyways and open spaces to create one or two other streets dedicated to commercial uses.

This will create a larger area with which to attract visitors and "be much more inviting," said LTU graduate student Nicholas Cuozzo.

DDA Chairman Kevin Stephison noted how the downtown's master plan already calls for creating "B" and "C" streets to house commercial uses such as "collision shops" and other "non-A-street-type businesses" that have popped up on M-24 over the years.

Nothing much happening north of Burdick

The students observed how a majority of downtown activity is very quadrant specific.

"Most people are either moving from the north to the south or staying in the south in (the southeast and southwest) quadrants, which kind of makes that the vibrant place to be," said LTU undergraduate Eric Meyers.

"It seems like once individuals get into a quadrant, they don't tend to migrate to other quadrants or other areas of the downtown," said Nykerk, noting that's primarily because of the high traffic volume and pedestrians feeling uncomfortable about crossing the busy road.

Nykerk informed the DDA that the Burdick/Washington intersection is "one of your unsafest intersections" given it has the "highest percentage of accidents" in the downtown area.

"Right now, pedestrians don't really go to that corner because it is unsafe," he said. "There's gravel trucks making turns, there's loud noise."

In order to get more people circulating around the downtown, Meyers told the DDA that the northeast and northwest quadrants "really need to have some life brought into them."

Nykerk noted how the intersection of Washington and Burdick streets needs to be "livened" up, particularly the northwest corner, which has the Northeast Oakland Historical Museum housed inside the historic Oxford Bank building (1922-66).

"With the old bank there, it just seems very quiet and really not a prominent place to hang out," he said.

Nykerk suggested introducing a "more pedestrian-friendly style of business on the corner."

Attracting youth to the downtown

LTU graduate student Mike Mason noted that when he met with Dr. Jim Schwarz, assistant superintendent for Oxford Community Schools, one of the things he believes downtown needs is more activities for young people.

Installation of a "hardscape park" in the northwest quadrant was suggested by LTU student Salvatore Asaro. This park could have moveable seating and a more urban feeling. Unlike a traditional park, which features greenery and other natural features, a hardscape park would be paved and contain man-made features.

Asaro suggested young art students from Merge Studio & Gallery (18 N. Washington St.) could go to this park and work on their projects in the fresh air and sunshine.