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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

Archive Edition

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Protecting the Past’s Future

Cities Employ Strategies to Handle Modern Transportation Needs in Historic Districts

By Jessica Zimmer

R. Kennedy for GPTMC

One of Philadelphia's amphibious Ducks tour buses

parks in front of Independence Hall.

Historic districts present city planners and traffic engineers with a unique challenge—balancing the need to attract visitors with state and sometimes federal requirements to protect the character of old neighborhoods.

Enter a strategy: Make the historic district the new downtown.

“We trademarked the term ‘hipstoric,’ a combination of ‘hip’ and ‘historic,’” said Cynthia Philo, the executive director of the Old City District of Philadelphia.

“We have residents, restaurants, places where you can buy art and a national park. [The Old City] is a unique, urban blend [of everything] you want to have in a downtown,” Philo said.

But what about the need to preserve the cobblestone roads? The necessity of building parking lots to house the cars? The tiny setbacks for storefronts which put buildings practically in the street?

The Old City District is located in the eastern part of Center City, a neighborhood at the heart of Philadelphia. The city grew west out of Old City, which sits on the bank of the Delaware River. Old City boasts a number of historic attractions, including Independence National Historical Park, where visitors flock to see the Liberty Bell. The district comprises about 22 square blocks. It features about 40 art galleries, over 130 restaurants and 125 boutique retail shops.

Deborah Schaaf, senior transportation planner of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, said drivers in Old City are frustrated by the fact that the large crowds of pedestrians make their own crosswalks.

“We have one-way streets and narrow, crowded sidewalks,” Schaaf said of the area. This leads to groups of pedestrians crossing the street in the middle of the block, she added.

Schaaf is currently exploring a solution called a leading pedestrian interval. “Instead of having a green light, you separate the turn light into two green arrows: A straight ahead green arrow and a right or left green arrow,” Schaaf said.

When the light turns green, Schaaf said, only the straight ahead arrow is lit. Then the crowd of pedestrians crosses, while the cars cannot turn. After about six seconds, the turn arrow is lit so the cars can turn. Some people are still walking, but by then, the large crowd of people has already gone.

Bennur Koksuz, director of the urban design division of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, said that another piece of the solution involves parking garages. Old City has about 350 parking facilities with about 50,000 spaces. More structures will likely be built. These garages are required to have façades that keep with the red brick, cream stucco and earth-toned brownstone row houses in the neighborhood.

“[For the larger] parking garages, if it’s at ground level, they must have retail. For the surface parking lots, where the parking meets the sidewalk, there needs to be a buffer zone that is four feet wide and six feet high,” Koksuz said.
Koksuz said typical barriers include brick walls, plantings and iron fences. In addition, the design division prohibits driveways and sloping ramps that front on important pedestrian walkways.

“It’s a question of balance [for] all the different modes: the cars, the pedestrians, the bikers,” Schaaf said. “It’s never going to be maximum efficiency for anyone.” 

Los Rios Street Historic District

While not the international tourist destination Philadelphia is, the Los Rios Street Historic District in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., sees several thousand visitors a year. Los Rios Street is a north-to-south road that runs a few blocks in this small coastal city, located in Orange County. There are historic houses, from Victorians to Craftsmans to Spanish adobes, along both sides. The street is one and a half blocks away from Mission San Juan Capistrano, the adobe and stone landmark that houses the famous swallows (see sidebar).

Courtesy SJC Historical Society

The Combs House (seen top in 1970 and above in 2006) is

a landmark in San Juan Capistrano's Los Rios Street Historic

District. The area is said to be the oldest residential

neighborhood in California.

Los Rios Street is said to be the oldest residential neighborhood in California. Now it is home to many boutiques and shops, including the Ito Nursery, the Ramos House Café and Zoomar’s Petting Zoo, which attracts families by the dozens. However, the street is old and extremely narrow.

“There are no sidewalks on either side, so pedestrians and vehicles tend to mix with each other,” said Allen Oswald, senior traffic engineer of San Juan Capistrano. “One point [we follow] is to minimize [the number of] vehicles in the street.”

In the late 1990s, the city bought the right-of-way for a private roadway in back of many residential properties on the western edge of the district. It then constructed a main public artery, Paseo Adelanto, to the west. Oswald estimates it diverted about 75 percent of the traffic on Los Rios Street. The city also cut off access from Los Rios Street to other roads.

“It used to be you could drive up Los Rios Street across the [railroad] tracks to Verdugo Street,” said Teri Delcamp, the historic preservation manager of San Juan Capistrano. “But we cul-de-sacked Los Rios Street and made it into a pedestrian plaza.”

The city has also built two parking structures near the district.

“We have the Franciscan Plaza Parking Structure, which has a couple hundred spaces, and a surface lot across from the parking structure, the Capistrano Depot Parking lots, with about 70-80 spots,” Oswald said.

Unfortunately, these facilities also serve the city’s downtown. Oswald said a new park should help solve the problem.

“Soon we are going to construct a greenspace with a small playground, Los Rios Park, which will have close to 80 more spaces,” Oswald said. 

The city also plans to construct a parking lot between Paseo Adelanto and Los Rios Street, according to Oswald.

Gwen Vermuelen, secretary of the San Juan Capistrano Historical Society, said that it is important for the city to preserve the “old, quaint” character of the district.

“When you walk on Los Rios Street, if you didn’t already know that the houses were businesses, you would never know,” Vermuelen said. “It’s very slow and peaceful, like how people used to live a hundred years ago.”

Miami Beach’s Art Deco District

The Art Deco District in Miami Beach, on the other hand, is a taste of the future set in the 1930s. The district, also called the Miami Beach Architectural District, is a square-mile rectangle of hotels, stores, apartment buildings and homes off the coast of South Florida.

Courtesy City of Miami Beach

Miami Beach recently adopted a plan that

emphasizes the expansion of bike routes.

You know you’ve entered the district when you see pastel blue, pink, yellow, green and white Art Deco and Mediterranean Revival buildings everywhere.

“It’s a living outdoor museum of 20th century design,” said Scott Timm, the director of programs and outreach at the Miami Design Preservation League, a non-profit organization.

The  party atmosphere, which is fueled by clubs, restaurants, beach events, and art galleries, draws crowds every day of the year. The city is working on several ways to manage the huge amount of foot, bike and automobile traffic that enters the district. On Oct. 17, the City Commission adopted the Atlantic Greenway Network Master Plan, which proposes a series of bike lanes, bike paths and bike routes throughout Miami Beach, according to Christine Leduc, transportation manager of Miami Beach. The city also wants to increase its options for mass transit.

 “Right now, Miami-Dade County Transit buses circulate our city. We may have more buses than we want, so we are thinking about consolidating some of the lines and getting some more circulators [in addition to the South Beach Local],” said Fernando Vasquez, city engineer of Miami Beach.

William Cary, the division director of the Department of Design, Preservation and Neighborhood Planning of Miami Beach, said that the city’s current strategy regarding parking involves incorporating parts of historic buildings into parking structures.

“We have incorporated the fronts of original Art Deco and Revival buildings that have been retained and restored into new parking garage designs,” Cary said.

Courtesy Scott Timm/MDPL

A living wall of vegetation hides a parking garage behind

it in the Miami Beach Art Deco District.

The strategy works because a historic building can its keep original storefront for a depth of 25-30 feet. The city then demolishes the rest of the building behind the front, and sets a six- story or less parking garage behind the front. A living green wall of vegetation is then planted between the building and the parking lot.

“That way, when you’re in the building, you’re not looking at a parking garage, you’re looking at the topiary,” Cary said.

Cary said a little taste of the “real world” can help anyone see why historic districts deserve constant transportation improvements.

“When you spend an afternoon driving around downtown Miami, and then you come back to Miami Beach, suddenly you’re back among two-, three-, four-story buildings. The trees are standing higher than the buildings. There is lots of light, lots of big sky. That’s when you begin to appreciate the value of historic preservation to create livable communities,” Cary said.

Jessica Zimmer is a freelance writer based in Florida.

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