The City of Lancaster
The City of Lancaster, CA, is a high desert community of approximately 157,000 people, located about 70 miles north of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Since incorporating in 1977, the City has experienced significant population growth fueled by annexations and new jobs in the aerospace industry (both military and non-military) and retail service sector. With the growth came a sprawling, low-density land use pattern, characterized by leap-frog development and high automobile dependence.
By the late 1980’s the City’s historic downtown was in serious decline. Most retailers and commercial services had long since migrated to commercial centers and strip malls in other parts of the city. For years big box retailers and regional malls had captured nearly all new commercial growth. Much of it was concentrated along the Antelope Valley Freeway (I-14). Meanwhile the historic downtown deteriorated rapidly. Crime became an increasing problem and the surrounding older neighborhoods were suffering.
Laying the Groundwork
To counter the trend, in the early 1990’s the City began efforts to reinvest in the historic downtown. Notable projects included a new public library and the Lancaster Performing Arts Center. A watershed event was the construction of the Metrolink Commuter Rail Station in 1994 within walking distance of downtown Lancaster. The rail station opened up potential opportunities for mixed-use transit oriented development which could spur downtown revitalization, but progress was slow. In 2003, the City adopted the North Downtown Transit Village Plan. This was followed by the adoption of the Downtown Lancaster Specific Plan in 2008, which included a form-based regulating code for the Lancaster Boulevard corridor.
I had visited Lancaster once before in 2005. At the time the downtown was so uninspiring I ended up spending most of my time in the library. Little did I know of the big plans already underway. In March of 2012, after attending the 2012 Complete Streets for California Conference in LA, I boarded the Metrolink for a return trip Lancaster. As before, my visit was on a Saturday afternoon.
A Living Street Blossoms in The Desert
The transformation of Lancaster Boulevard was astonishing. I’ve seen several street revitalization projects, but none in such a seemingly improbable location. Today the nine-block stretch of Lancaster Boulevard is the hottest street in Antelope Valley. I was particularly impressed by the effectiveness of the design prepared by Moule & Polyzoides Architects. As a planner and complete streets advocate it’s easy to pick out the standard elements of a complete street. But the creation of a living street is a special achievement which owes much more to the nuances of the design. Here’s what I observed.
Given Lancaster’s auto-centric roots, I was genuinely impressed by the elegant way in which the new street design mediates the needs of motorists with those of pedestrians. Every planner knows how touchy people are about parking. Merchants want the parking to be visible from the street, customers feel it’s a right, and residents are always wary of their streets being inundated with spillover parking from commercial areas. The Lancaster BLVD design offers the clever solution of massing the parking in a multi-use area in the center of the right-of-way. The default and predominant use is two opposing rows of head-in parking interspersed with small pedestrian plazas at every crosswalk (there are 21 crosswalks!). During special events, such as the wildly successful Lancaster farmer’s market, cars are restricted and the “parking” area becomes an extension of the pedestrian plazas.
Sustainable Parking is Key to Design
Urban designers, such as Eran Ben-Joseph (author of Rethinking A Lot: The Design and Culture of Parking), increasing note the multi-use characteristic of parking lots and the vast potential to redesign these areas to incorporate sustainable designs that also enhance the public realm. Parking areas are often the pedestrian’s first encounter with the intended destination. The Lancaster BLVD design is a superb example of this concept. It invites you to park your car and walk. Once outside your car, you immediately sense that you are in a pedestrian priority area.
A variety of design elements enhance walkability. Permeable pavers are used throughout the multi-use area including designated parking areas and the crosswalk plazas. Rows of palm trees run up and down the entire multi-use area while other trees and planters help to break up the paving and define the use of space. Strategically placed light standards, plant containers, and bollards are used to keep cars from venturing where they don’t belong. The crosswalk plazas transform what would otherwise be perceived as pedestrian refuge medians into what is essentially a sidewalk grid. People enjoy spending time in the crosswalk plazas. Each offers plenty of benches, shade from the hot sun and attractive landscaping. Adding to the effect, the entire multi-use area is decked out with handsome pedestrian scaled light standards and hanging lamps. No cobra lamps are anywhere in sight.
On either side of the multi-purpose area are narrow one-way travel lanes, no more than 10 feet wide on the inner blocks. The sidewalk side of the lane has a curb while the multi-use side is at street level. The transition is defined by the change in paving from the asphalt of the travel lane to the textured pavers in the multi-use area. An additional parking lane for parallel parking is provided on the sidewalk side of the outer blocks on each end of the project.
Pedestrians “Feel” Safe
The amount of area devoted to the travel lanes is minimal given the total public realm between the building facades on the north and south side of the street. The predominance of walkable area enhances the sense of pedestrian safety. A pedestrian can cross each travel lane in about three seconds. Remarkably, no traffic signals or stop signs are employed in the line of traffic along Lancaster Boulevard except at the ends of the project. Instead, the motorist is confronted with a gauntlet of high visibility crosswalks all along the BLVD. Adding to the roadway friction are the parked cars backing out into the travel lanes. The effect is not unlike driving through a parking lot. It is nearly impossible to drive faster than 10 to 15 miles per hour. Posted speeds and other traffic calming devices are not needed. Even though crosswalks are ubiquitous, traffic is slow enough that pedestrians can easy cross mid-block without much concern.
The narrow travel lanes also serve as sharrows. Dedicated bike lanes are not needed because at slow speeds even casual bicyclists can feel safe mingling with cars. Occasionally, a bicyclist will use a crosswalk apron to weave onto the sidewalk to circumvent slower auto traffic. However, the efficiency of the narrow travel lanes was quite impressive.
Despite what might seem to be a tedious passage through the BLVD there was no lack of cars on the day of my visit. The parking areas in the central blocks near the new movie theater were nearly full with more plentiful spaces to be found toward the outer blocks. As I sat at a local sidewalk café (non-existent on my previous visit) I witnessed a steady parade of cars moving up and down the BLVD. Many were looking for a parking space. Others no doubt were just cruising. Slower traffic is just fine for that crowd.
Branding Adds to Attraction
The sidewalks of the BLVD project are wide with large high quality pavers different in texture from the multi-use area. No gaps can be found anywhere in the project area. Quality seating and lighting are plentiful all the way up to the building facades. Considerable emphasis was placed on branding the shopping area. The BLVD logo appears frequently on sidewalk pavers, light posts and elsewhere within the project. An outdoor stage was built at the corner of Lancaster Blvd, and Elm Avenue. The BLVD also serves as Lancaster’s Aerospace Walk of Honor. Monuments to test pilots and other aerospace pioneers are strategically located along the sidewalks. The Tuskegee Airmen Museum located on the east end of the BLVD fits right in with this theme and is a point of pride for the City’s sizeable African-American population.
Remembering what downtown Lancaster was like just a few short years ago, it is heart-warming to see young families with toddlers, teenagers, senior citizens and everyone else moving freely up and down the street, dining and shopping in a main street setting. An area that was once avoided is now a source of pride for the entire community. A long time Lancaster resident I met on my visit summed it up quite nicely: “When I come downtown, I feel like I’m in another city—this doesn’t seem like Lancaster.”
Living Streets are an Investment
One cannot visit downtown Lancaster today without gaining an appreciation for the place-making potential of living streets. Of course there is more to the story. City leaders, including the mayor, provided strong support for the project. A substantial amount of money was spent on planning, new buildings, renovations, and efforts to attract new businesses. But, what brought it all together was The BLVD Transformation Project which broke ground in March 2010 and was completed in November of that year. Keep in mind that this occurred at the bottom of the recession. As reported by the Lancaster Redevelopment Agency, the total investment for the street renovation was $11.6 million. Total project costs were $41 million. In early 2012, the Agency reported an overall investment yield of $274 million in economic output with $13.2 million generated in state and local revenue. Forty new businesses moved into the project area. The BLVD has become “the place” for community and cultural events that attract people from all over the Antelope Valley.
While the cost was high, the project was an investment, not merely an expense. That’s the promise of living streets. The Lancaster example inspires on many levels, not the least of which is the impression that “if it can be done here, it can be done anywhere.”