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Saturday, August 16, 2014

Old Town in Salinas

A few months ago, I passed through Salinas, California for a funeral. I wish the circumstances had been better, and that I could have spent a little more time and had an opportunity to speak with some of the local planners. The relationships between the spaces along the Main Street corridor in Old Town seemed quite interesting.

The Main Street commercial core in Old Town is a compact area. This is due in part to its conversion into a sort of enclave. It encompasses a relatively short distance of Main Street that is effectively demarcated from the rest of its length. The busier arterial streets that flank the Main Street core also create some separation from the surrounding area. It is interesting to note that this length of Main Street is generally consistent with the "400 meter rule." The section from San Luis Street to its termination at the Steinbeck Center is a little under 500 meters. It is also significant that the Steinbeck Center terminates the vista and encloses this section of street more like an outdoor room.

While many planners who talk about walkable downtowns are quick to promote two-way streets as a sort of pedestrian panacea, it is interesting to note that the pedestrian-friendly area of Old Town is along a one-way section of Main Street. The use of angled parking effectively calms the traffic, as do the mid-block sidewalk extensions with pedestrian crossings. The traffic calming treatments could be applied to either one-way or two-way streets, although it may be possible to introduce angled parking on a second side of the street on some one-way streets that would not have sufficient width under a two-way configuration. A one-way configuration also has the inherent advantage of limiting the demands on pedestrians to try simultaneously gauging traffic coming at them from two different directions at uncontrolled mid-block crossings.

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The angled parking and the mid-block sidewalk extensions calm traffic

The mid-block crossings form a pedestrian axis that is more than just an extra place to cross the street between intersections. They align with pedestrian passageways through the block to parking areas on the other streets. In some cases, these passages provide additional store frontage or space for outdoor restaurant seating. It was not clear on my quick visit if the outdoor restaurant seating had failed, or if it was a seasonal use that hadn't started yet for the warmer months when I was there.

Off-street parking lots are located on a pair of flanking one-way streets that carry much higher volumes of fast traffic. While Main Street is walkable and has a respectable amount of pedestrian activity, it was quite clear that a vast majority of the customers arrive and depart by car. This results in the enclave feel of Main Street, which make the restaurants and retail a destination, rather than an impulse stop for drivers who saw the business sign on the way by. The passageways serve as the entrances where people transition from drivers to pedestrians.

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Street View of Monterey Street, the northbound busy street. The municipal parking lot is on the left with the trees

The municipal parking lot on Salinas Avenue

A pedestrian passageway looking from Main Street to the municipal parking lot on Monterey Street

In addition to the passages to the parking lots at the mid-block crossing, there is also a through-block pedestrian retail alley connecting to the sidewalks on each side. This is again consistent with the enclave and destination character of Old Town.

A vehicular alleyway (Melody Lane) runs between Salinas Street and Main Street, and it is rather fascinating. The backs of the buildings facing the parking lot appear to be starting to develop a couple of storefronts of their own, suggesting that this could eventually become a more activated space. Other entrances along the alley are more ambiguous. It was not always clear what was a service entrance for a store or if some of the doors might be entrances to low-rent apartments or other uses.

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I encountered a few panhandlers on my handful of stops on Main Street, and there appeared to be some presence of the homeless in the Melody Lane alley. Local family informed me that homelessness is an issue in Old Town, and that there had even been a violent attack on a homeless person by one of the business owners. The business owner's conviction apparently disrupted his family's businesses, which were among the downtown anchors. Homelessness is a complex issue, and the assault was clearly beyond the pale, but the relationship between the homeless and the physical layout of these spaces may be worth understanding on a deeper level.

The Salinas Transit Center is located across a busy arterial from the commercial core on Main Street. This seems like the real lost opportunity. Trying to push buses through Main Street would compromise its walkability and sense of place, yet the disconnect and the need to cross a busy street certainly make a transit trip to Old Town less attractive. Given the large investment and relatively strong design of the transit center itself, trying to relocate it seems unlikely. Instead, creating a more urbane, well-designed crossing that prioritizes the pedestrians/transit passengers would do a great deal to integrate the transit system into Old Town and make it a more attractive option.

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It is worth comparing the section of Main Street in Old Town to the sections further south. In both locations, the street has the same overall street width, but a very different configuration and traffic operation. Stretches with two-way traffic, no on-street parking, and interrupted street walls are far less conducive to pedestrian comfort. That does not mean there isn't pedestrian activity, but there is clearly less for a person to do here once they have gotten out of the car, and less to draw them down the street before getting back into the car again.

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Main Street in Old Town works quite well as a one-way street; better, most likely, than if it were forced into a two-way configuration. The one-way arterials that flank it serve an entirely different purpose. They are far less successful as enjoyable places for pedestrians, but are integrated into the overall design of the Old Town core to bring the pedestrians and take them away without conflicting with the pedestrian environment. In some ways, the configuration is akin to an outdoor mall, although without the challenging, heavy-handed issues that come from private management. A few intersection treatments and a little basic traffic calming could go a long way toward tying the transit center into the successful pedestrian area as well as the surrounding area. It would also be interesting to see what could be done with the introduction of a real, protected bicycle network, which would put much of Salinas within reach of Old Town without the need for a car.

As a final observation, on a quick drive by, it appeared there were real issues related to limited connectivity and poor pedestrian conditions across Highway 101. While driving by a few times, I thought I saw people walking relatively long trips across the dusty service road along the Main Canal (although nobody was captured when the Google Street View car rolled by). For anybody planning for Salinas, an issue like this very well may be a higher priority than tinkering with a downtown area, which appears to be working fairly well already. Needless to say, quick, initial observations can be very informative, but should never be considered as a substitute for actual analysis and planning work.

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