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Archive for the ‘Downtowns’ Category

Death knell, part 2

I left before the FNSB Assembly had voted — in fact, at least an hour before public testimony had finished — but word has it that Ordinance 2011-32, a soft-pedaled version of a zoning ordinance defeated 4-4 a few months ago, was defeated by a vote of 6 to 3.  Voting against were Natalie Howard, Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Tim Beck, Joe Blanchard, and Diane Hutchison.  Voting for were Nadine Winters, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick.  I give my thanks to those last three.

I do not feel civil this morning.  I fear that Fairbanks is a damned town, again and again making itself a less fit place for a civilized person to live.

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I am angry and heartbroken tonight.

By a 4-4 vote, the Borough Assembly just failed to pass Ordinance 2010-09, which would have created two new zoning types: a “retail hot spot” and a “supporting commercial district”.  These new zones — which would have been merely codified, not even applied — were one of the key governmental tools for encouraging businesses to invest in quality retail building downtown.  And now it’s fucked, thanks to Michael Dukes, Matt Want, Natalie Howard, and Joe Blanchard — none of whom owns a god-damned square foot in downtown Fairbanks.  (According to the FNSB Assessing property database.)

I can’t get into the particular arguments the detractors used — I’m too heartbroken right now — but I do want to thank Assembly members Nadine Winters, Diane Hutchison, Karl Kassel, and Mike Musick, for their “yes” votes, as well as Mayor Luke Hopkins for putting the ordinance forward, David van den Berg of the Downtown Association for his ongoing work with downtown business owners and the revitalization effort, and everyone who testified in favor of the proposed ordinance, including the near-unanimity of downtown business owners who supported it.

No doubt the detractors are comforted by their free market and anti-government ideology.  My curse on them is that all their cars break down, and then they can see how much they like their WalMart shopping and their living out on Chena Fucking Hot Springs Road.

It’s enough to make me want to ditch this Borough, this un-community, for a place civic-minded enough to say, “We will take these restrictions on ourselves and impose them on others who may sometimes be unwilling, because public will is sometimes more important than some individual jackass who might want to stand in the way of 100% consensus” — and then to torch this fucking place on my way out.  (Please understand, I do not mean the “torch this place” thing literally.  It is an expression of my disappointment and my feeling of hopelessness for Fairbanks’s future.)

Vivat communitas!  Stadtluft macht frei!

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Corrected 20 August 2009

Readers of today’s News-Miner will already know: the FMATS Policy Committee scrapped the idea of a roundabout at the north end of Cushman St. and voted to plan for one-way traffic on the bridges south of the intersection.  I fear that their decisions have just driven a nail into the coffin of downtown revitalization efforts.

The Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System Policy Committee “voted 5-2 to abandon talk of a roundabout,” with Assemblyman Luke Hopkins and Fairbanks Mayor Terry Strle voting no, and “voted 4-3 to plan for one-way traffic on bridges to the intersection’s south.”

Current plans are to build a bridge joining Barnette St. (to the south of the Chena) with Illinois St. (to the north).  Barnette, Illinois, and Cushman, along with Doyon Pl. to the west east and Terminal St. to the east west, would intersect at a single point north of the river, between The Big I and Immaculate Conception Church.  The Illinois Street Reconstruction Project has been under discussion and in planning for decades, and it seems finally ready to move forward.  My understanding is that FMATS has recently been deciding whether to choose a roundabout or a signalized intersection.

While I have little experience driving roundabouts — they’re not very common in the United States, and I could count those in the greater Fairbanks area on one hand, even if missing three fingers — everything I’ve read about them suggests that they both increase safety and speed traffic flow.  For one example, Slate recently ran a piece called “Don’t be so square: why American drivers should learn to love the roundabout” that makes the following points:

  1. Roundabouts are safer than traditional intersections because they reduce the number of possible places of collision, eliminate the left turn against oncoming traffic, slow people down rather than encourage them to “beat the light”, and reduce the severity of accidents.
  2. Though vehicles appear to be moving slowly through roundabouts, average travel time through the intersection is actually reduced, because nobody has to sit through a ninety-second light cycle.
  3. Stop-and-start queuing is energy-inefficient (burns more fuel), and studies have shown roundabouts to waste less energy and to cause less pollution.
  4. Roundabouts are good for public space: they require less pavement than signalized intersections, increase pedestrian and traffic safety in neighborhoods, and offer the chance to actually beautify an intersection.

The article does not address roundabouts in subarctic climates, or the safety of trucks, RVs, and other large vehicles going through them.  It’s possible that winter driving conditions present some complication that makes roundabouts unworkable.  But I doubt it.

What has me more worried than FMATS’s rejection of the roundabout is their decision to plan the Cushman and Barnette bridges for one-way traffic.  Making those bridges one-way puts a major kink in the plan currently being pursued by the City of Fairbanks to turn both Cushman and Barnette two-way — and a two-way Cushman St. has been a central feature of the Vision Fairbanks downtown revitalization plan.

Some of the arguments for two-way streets in retail districts go like this:

  • People are more comfortable driving fast on one-way streets, while two-way streets make them (on the whole) drive more slowly and cautiously. Pedestrians are more menaced and less welcomed by fast vehicular traffic. Creating a pedestrian-friendly environment is crucial to a central commercial/civic district.
  • With two-way traffic, businesses can be seen easily by drivers in both directions — for example, a cafe will be seen by both the morning and the evening traffic, so it’s more likely to get unplanned, drive-by business.
  • One-way streets require more out-of-direction travel for people to reach their destinations. (“Is that it? Damn, I passed it. Well, let’s circle the block.”) This frustrates drivers and over time makes them less willing to enter an area.

Vision Fairbanks has tremendous promise. But the decision to plan for one-way bridges may well hamstring the revitalization.  The planning consultants who drafted the original plan stressed that two-way traffic is a linchpin of making Cushman a thriving retail district.

I’m worried that the Vision Fairbanks plan is now being bled to death.  If two-way traffic is as crucial as it’s been made out to be, the new retail and civic hot spot will be a bust.  Then, of course, all the nay-sayers who distrusted city planners from the beginning will come out, crowing, “I told you so!”  And those of of little imagination will have proven themselves right.

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

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The red couch (and chair) of Red Couch Trading Post

The red couch (and chair) of Red Couch Trading Post

I write this from the latest treasure to open downtown: Red Couch Trading Post, where I write on my laptop while enjoying a blueberry cream-cheese cake, a cinnamon pull-apart (a small monkey bread), and a coffee.

Red Couch is part cafe, part bakery, part deli, and part convenience store. They have a simple deli counter, where you can have sandwiches made to order. At the same counter is their selection of pastries: not only the cinnamon pull-aparts, but cakes, pies, cobblers, and cookies. (I have tried both the peach and the blueberry cobblers, and they are excellent.) The espresso bar offers Fair Trade Certified coffee, both in prepared beverages and as bags of beans.

Most exciting, I think, is that Red Couch is a locally owned, neighborhood convenience store. Not only coffee beans are for sale, but also milk, butter (by the stick), single-serving breakfast cereals, crackers, chips, canned soups, canned milk, toothbrushes and toothpaste, toilet paper, laundry detergent, and cat and dog food. (In fact, I first stopped into Red Couch a couple of weeks ago, when I was clean out of cat food. I made the mistake of driving to a popular national chain first and getting what I needed, then visiting Red Couch because I’d read about it in the newspaper. I kicked myself afterwards for depriving myself of a nice walk and the chance to support a neighborhood business.)

Now, the two or three national chain groceries closest to downtown have a far greater selection than Red Couch — but having the greatest selection is not the point of a convenience store. The point is that it’s in your neighborhood, and going there is faster and easier than getting in your car to drive to a major grocery store. In fact, the major grocery stores near us are within walking distance of practically nobody (which, if you’re without a car, really makes them inconvenience stores). Red Couch is actually in a neighborhood, where people live. They are right behind Golden Towers public housing and within especially easy reach of the east side of downtown (Clay St., etc.).

The fact that they offer wireless internet access (in addition to lunch, coffee, and snacks) means that they are a great place for downtown business people to spend time getting work done in a bright, relaxed atmosphere. My wife, for example, often has to be in the courthouse, and she could do a good bit of e-mailing and report-writing while enjoying tea, coffee, or lunch — or while just relaxing on the cozy red couch for which the store is named.

(Today was my first time trying to connect to their wireless access point, with no success.  My computer told me that the connection was established, but nothing was ever transmitted or received.  If anybody reading this has some wireless networking expertise, could you please pay them a visit to see if there’s anything they might change to make the wireless work better?)

I think it’s always a good thing when a local business gives people reasons to get out of their houses and walk around their neighborhoods. In fact, the best neighborhoods are full of such destinations, and can be identified partly by the number of people on the street moving from one useful place to the next. Red Couch Trading Post gives downtown another such destination — a place to do something useful and to relax (and perhaps to run into neighbors). As long as they’re open, I’ll happily give them my custom.

The building is unremarkable, but the location is great -- as are the cobblers

The building is unremarkable, but the location is great -- as are the cobblers

Red Couch Trading Post is at 309 Second Avenue (where Second crosses Dunkel), in downtown Fairbanks.  They are currently open Tuesday – Friday, 6:30 a.m. – 6:00 p.m., and Saturday, 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.  Their telephone number is 374-3414; their fax number (they take fax orders for sandwiches) is 374-3430.

Article from the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Thursday, May 7, 2009.


In sadder news, Gambardella’s has now closed their breakfast service. A manager told me that they got almost no business at that hour, and it just wasn’t cost effective to keep three or more people on staff for the extra hours. That’s too bad: I thought they lent breakfast a touch of class, a chance for the morning crowd to take a step up from the readily-available diner fare. I wish Red Couch better luck.

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Summer patio at Gambardellas

Summer patio at Gambardella's

Holy cats! Gambardella’s is now doing breakfast, and it’s fantastic!

It was just luck that I discovered it, too: I’d had to walk to an ATM before traveling, and my walk back took me along Second Avenue past this classic Fairbanks restaurant.  Their door was open, and they’d put out an “Open” sign.  I stopped in long enough to find out why, then brought my family back later.  (Maybe it wasn’t just luck: I’d never have noticed it if I’d had to drive.)

They have a simple enough breakfast menu: pastries, eggs, bagels, toast, omelettes, coffee, juice, et cetera.  Our portions — my wife got a breakfast burrito with eggs, cheese, and bacon, while I got a frittata with sun-dried tomatoes, onions, and broccoli — were modestly sized, not too large; at the same time, the prices were none too high, in the $3-$4 range (omlettes were $7-$8).  My experience with many breakfast restaurants is just the opposite: both portions and prices are excessive, and I wish they’d just cut both in half. We also each had a latte — only 99 cents through May 29!

Gambardellas middle dining room

Gambardella's middle dining room

Not only were the food and prices reasonable, but Gambardella’s itself is a beautiful environment in which to have breakfast. The building is colorful, a bright spot in a sometimes-dreary downtown plagued by too much gray and beige.  Their interior is comfortable and has high-enough class to make your breakfast feel like a dignified affair — though, as I said, not the prices that would keep you out.  (My only quibble with Gambardella’s is their soundproofing: it’s very noisy at dinner.  But not at breakfast.)

I’m not in the restaurant-review business, nor in the promotion/advertisement business.  But, when something comes into town that gives people something to walk to, gives people a reason to get out of their cars and experience their own neighborhood, that’s exciting.  Of course, The Diner (on Illinois) and the Co-op Diner (in the Two Street Co-op) have been serving breakfast downtown for years.  What makes this special is that it gives people of no special means a chance to enjoy a morning of beauty and elegance (with somebody else doing the dishes) right in their neighborhood.


Gambardella’s is serving breakfast 7-11 a.m., Monday through Friday.  Stop by soon, and help keep this touch of elegance afloat!

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A quick news flash, because I’m tired: Jerry Cleworth’s resolution, which I think would have kneecapped the downtown revitalization effort,  failed — though only through a tie-breaking vote by the mayor.  The final vote: For, Cleworth, Roberts, and Stiver; Against, Bratcher, Gatewood, Eberhart, and Mayor Strle.  (News-Miner story here.)

As I posted Saturday, City Councilman Jerry Cleworth proposed a resolution (no. 4353) that would have halted the use of city funds for the conversion of Cushman Street from one-way to two-way.  This conversion, however, was the linchpin of Vision Fairbanks, according to the city planners hired to draft downtown’s revitalization plan (Crandall-Arambula of Portland, Oregon).

From the start of Citizens’ Comments on Monday evening to the final vote, four and a half hours passed.  At least three of those were spent on public testimony, including a little testimony on another other resolution before the Council.  The testimony was largely in opposition to Cleworth’s resolution — though not so overwhelmingly as it was in favor of Vision Fairbanks’s passage at previous meetings.

Despite the good case that existed in favor of the resolution — and Mr. Cleworth seemed to make that case beautifully — it seemed plain to me that most of the citizens testifying in favor had not attended any of the original visioning meetings, had not read the final plan approved by the Borough Assembly, or had heard only spotty details through the newspaper or word of mouth.  Of course, you could also say that most of the supporters had merely drunk the Vision Fairbanks Kool-Aid and that their testimony didn’t address the meat of Cleworth’s concerns either.  Frankly, I was tired enough when he finally spoke that I couldn’t keep all the pieces together.

There was a relatively brief grilling of Fairbanks Public Works director Mike Schmetzer, City Engineer Bob Pristash, and Donna Gardino of FMATS (the Fairbanks Metropolitan Area Transportation System).  They covered the history of certain appropriations and projects, and discussed the sources and allocation of various monies.  It’s probably not over my head in principle, but it felt like it at 10:45 at night.

Councilwoman Vivian Stiver had what I thought was the most sensible suggestion of the evening: postpone the vote on the resolution until Wednesday’s work session and later public meeting with Crandall Arambula.  If we can present our concerns to them, she reasoned, they may have a good explanation of how various projects will work, or at least convince us of the utter necessity of this current project.  Cleworth was the only other person to support her, so it failed.

Some comments made by Stiver and Chad Roberts concerned me: they both seem to think Fairbanks’s chance of attracting major retail downtown is low to nil.  They seem to think that, since the explosion of big-box chain retail outlets at Steese and Johansen, the City of Fairbanks has missed the boat.  Of course, attracting a major anchor store on Cushman Street is supposedly critical to Vision Fairbanks’s success.  If they’re right, then the plan is largely screwed — I hope not irredemably.

(This makes me wonder: Why, when V.F. was before the Council earlier, did they cower in fear at its suggestion that one regulatory tool of encouraging downtown retail might be to restrict big-box retail development elsewhere for a time?  Why did their resolution’s otherwise tepid language condemn the inclusion of such a suggestion in the plan?)

I should mention that some of the City Council members seemed genuinely torn about what to do, most notably Bernard Gatewood and John Eberhart.  And, when I talk about Jerry Cleworth “kneecapping” or “deep-sixing” Vision Fairbanks, that’s not really being fair to him.  I think he’s a responsible public servant with a clear understanding of the budget, and he has responsible stewardship at heart.

My only real distrust — and this just as far as a vision for vibrant civic and commercial space — is for Chad Roberts.  He seems genuinely to believe that downtown is just fine as it is.  Also, during the Council meeting ten months ago, he expressed an admiration for the free market that seemed to preclude a community’s having any power to say what it wanted in a city center.  Whatever his other virtues, he seems to disagree with me that communities have a right of collective self-determination that, where city planning is concerned, should usually supersede the right of the individual to build whatever civic monstrosity he likes.

I’m happy for now that Vision Fairbanks lives to fight another day.

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Anybody reading today’s (Saturday’s) News Miner knows that Jerry Cleworth of the Fairbanks City Council has proposed a resolution that would halt Cushman’s conversion into a two-way street.  While his goal of saving money is admirable, the proposal is short-sighted and would deal a major blow to the revitalization of downtown.

You can help downtown — and, by extension, all of Fairbanks — by attending the City Council meeting this Monday (February 9) and testifying against this resolution.  Citizens’ testimony begins at 7:00.

Cleworth is quoted as asking: “Would it not be wiser to try and get some infrastructure upgrades such as sidewalks and streets rather than spending it redirecting traffic?”

By his question, Councilman Cleworth trivializes the value of turning Cushman into a two-way street. He tries to make it sound as if all the money will do is redirect traffic, and thus shows a shallow understanding of the effect of vehicular traffic on a business district.

I can think easily of three reasons for turning Cushman — supposedly our “Main Street” — from one-way to two:

  1. When a network of one-way streets requires lots of turns and out-of-direction travel, individual businesses suffer. Despite the alleged convenience of cars, people have only so much patience, and they’re less likely to visit a business if it requires turning several times.
  2. When a downtown is plagued by a network of confusing one-way streets, people are likely to avoid downtown altogether, and all businesses suffer. People like to have multiple ways in and out of a business district, and they like to know it will be easy to navigate.
  3. When converted to two-way, traffic speeds on Cushman (and Barnette, don’t forget) will be reduced, since drivers (as a whole) are more cautious on a two-way street than on a one-way. This will make Cushman a more appealing place for pedestrians, which is at the crux of Vision Fairbanks. Places that invite pedestrians also invite business, since people, at their slower pace, are more likely to stop at establishments unexpectedly.

The conversion of Cushman to two-way traffic is not trivial; it is a catalyst project that is meant to attract new businesses, and perhaps the linchpin of the whole Vision Fairbanks plan.  If you were an entrepreneur, wouldn’t you rather locate your store where people could reach it more easily, on their way into and out of your neighborhood?

I appreciate that Councilman Cleworth is concerned for the wise allocation of limited City money. But I’m afraid that his resolution, if passed, will pound a nail in downtown’s coffin and only fulfill the prophecies of those nay-sayers who have decried Vision Fairbanks from the start.

Please encourage the City Council to reject this resolution. Encourage them to follow through on this crucial part of a project that has received overwhelming community support and that will make downtown again a very worthwhile place to be.  Come to the City Council meeting this Monday evening; wear blue to show your support for Vision Fairbanks; and tell the Council members that Cushman Street must be made two-way!

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