Civic leaders and organizations were led on a walkability tour of Markham Street Monday afternoon followed by a group discussion of the tour hosted by Gateway Planning at the Conway Chamber of Commerce.
The walkability assessment was led by renowned bicycle and pedestrian advocate Dan Burden.
Burden, named one of the six most important civic innovators in the world by TIME magazine in 2001, has spent more than 35 years making communities more bicycle and pedestrian friendly, earning two lifetime achievement awards for his efforts.
In 2009, Burden co-founded the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute to support communities becoming more engaged and healthier through active living.
As the Institute’s Director of Innovation and Inspiration, Burden led city staff, local business owners and representatives of Hendrix College, the University of Central Arkansas and the Conway Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, among others down Markham Street making suggestions for improvement.
Burden said the city wants to build villages, not traffic by removing elements that are solely meant for cars.
Which, he says is the way Conway’s roundabouts have been designed.
“Properly designed roundabouts allow pedestrians to cross the street with no delay,” he said. “You’ve designed some great roundabouts, but they’re not designed for people.”
The intersection of Mill Street and Markham Street would be a keen spot for a roundabout, Burden said. “People need easy ways to cross the street every 500 to 600 feet.”
During the discussion following the walkability tour, Jim Bruce, a representative from Conway Advocates for Bicycling, said he’s concerned about gentrification of the existing neighborhood.
Burden said gentrification is a very complex thing, but he always shares this advice with the communities he visits.
“Don’t disallow something you really want because you’re worrying about ‘Are you going to displace people?,” he said. “Put the legislation or the codes in place, so that you keep all those folks that would like to continue to live there, there and attract new people as well.”
Gateway Planing, a professional planning consultant company from Dallas, is meeting with small business owners and churches on Markham Street to make sure home owners’ and renters’ voices are heard.
The best way to draw people from downtown out onto Markham Street, Burden said, is to start from the edge of downtown, camouflaging the empty parking lots and buildings that don’t have much curb appeal with liner buildings that meet the street.
Brent Salter, vice president of Salter Properties, said with the barriers that have been created with the railroad and Harkrider, he wants to make a larger downtown, and Markham Street seems like the right direction, but the project will take time.
“The grand ideas are wonderful, but it takes someone to step out there and take a risk,” he said. “For us to think we’re going to do street improvements, and in the next three years, someone’s going to jump out there and you’re going to have Oak Street all the way to Hendrix is a bit of a stretch.”
The worst thing that could happen to the future of the project is to have a plan that’s “pie in the sky” and not grounded in reality because it sets back the effort, said Brad Lonberger, vice president of Gateway Planning.
Gateway Planning is providing feasibility studies and market research to provide developers the tools they need to invest in Markham Street redevelopment.
Markham Street measures 54 feet wide at the intersection of Van Ronkle Street. The width should be 28 feet at the most, Burden said.
Bryan Patrick, director of planning, said Markham Street used to be a highway and that explains why it is so wide.
“In a way we’re going back to try to correct urban sprawl,” he said. “It doesn’t look like it now, but that was Conway’s first area of urban sprawl.”
Bike lanes could be the first and most inexpensive thing the city could do to bring back some of the life and vitality of the area.
“Putting in bike lanes would be an automatic slam dunk,” Burden said.
The Locals Director Sandra Leyva said she was most interested in the cheap ways Burden suggested the city could make Markham look more welcoming such as bike lanes and tables and chairs.
“Much like the way we are doing this with the building we have with very little money,” she said, “a lot can be done with little resources if you spend more time doing than talking.”
Todd Ake, bicycle representative for the Conway Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board, said his biggest concern is how all of the recent development projects that have been announced, such as the Front Street Redevelopment and Central Landing, are being funded.
“We’re investing taxes to help private development,” he said. “After the old airport site is developed, will Conway Commons dry up?”
Planning consultants took note that a return on investment was important to the community.
“A lot of these improvements are low hanging fruit,” Burden said. “You just need to apply the paint.”
(Staff writer Michelle Corbet can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 505-1215. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to www.thecabin.net. Send us your news at www.thecabin.net/submit)