Planners look to delay Old Woodward project
By Kevin Elliott
Plans to break ground next year on the southern portion of S. Old Woodward in downtown Birmingham should be put on hold, according to several members of the city’s planning board at their meeting on Wednesday, August 25.
The South Old Woodward Reconstruction Project Phase 3 is scheduled to begin in 2022, running from Brown to Landon streets. One of the key goals of the project is to improve safety for pedestrian and vehicles, with many of the same streetscape and traffic calming elements installed along N. Old Woodward and S. Old Woodward north of Brown Street.
Planning board members on Wednesday, August 25 were presented with a preliminary design concept by MKSK Landscape Architect and project manager Haley Wolfe. Though board members were receptive of the design, they questioned the timing of the project.
“I question the timing with what is happening in the south end,” said board member Bryan Williams. “We have RH (Restoration Hardware) – a major construction project, which they estimate is going to take two years to complete, at the corner of Brown and S. Old Woodward. We have another project further south. And we have the master plan (Birmingham 2040 master plan), where the planning board was almost united in that we needed to do something south of the 555 Building. And, I think the master plan suggests traffic be rerouted at that point over to Woodward and not go down to Landon.
“My point is real simple: I think we have a great potential here to waste a lot of the city’s money by doing this right now, then changing it two years from now when the master plan is adopted,” Williams continued. “I think the south end needs attention. There’s no question that many of the proposals are really good and I like them. My question is timing. I think this should be put off for two or three years and study what develops at the south end before we spend a lot of money and then have to rip it up three years from now.”
Wolfe said the plan improves walkability and safety; adds green space and seating; reduces vehicle conflicts and speeds; eases convenience for bus stops; provides parking for scooters and bicycles; and considers electric vehicle parking.
Among the elements are diagonal parking, which improves safety and visibility; updated ADA parking spaces; three additional pedestrian crosswalks; and curb bump-outs, which provide shorter road crossings, slower traffic and increased visibility.
However, improved safety comes at an additional cost: parking reductions. The plan calls for reducing on-street parking from 154 spaces to 98 spaces. Wolfe said the utilization rate is expected to go from 36 percent in June 2021 to 57 percent when completed.
Planning board member and architect Bert Koseck noted that parking is a concern that should be considered when drafting and discussing the plan.
“My fundamental concern is that utilization rates are a snapshot in time,” Koseck said. “If you build this, we are stuck with this for 50 years, so we have to think about the future, and in this area, to the best of my knowledge, there won’t be any additional public parking… I’m less concerned about utilization and more about parking loss and what is there today.”
Koseck said each parking space represents thousands in potential revenue to adjacent businesses.
“Please be aware of the fact that parking is so precious,” he said. “This is the cheapest way the city can provide parking. We need to make sure we are finding that proper balance between beauty, pedestrian safety and finding a place to park.”
Board member Janelle Boyce said she was happy to see considerations taken for improved safety, such as reducing parking close to intersections to increase visibility. “It’s nice to see this much thought into that piece of it,” she said.
Board member Jason Emerine concurred with the need to increase pedestrian safety, pointing out curb bump-outs to shorten walkways across Old Woodward. “It’s dangerous to cross in the south end,” he said.
Part of the challenge in slowing traffic pertains to vehicles entering Old Woodward from Woodward, said board member Robin Boyle. Vehicles speed across Woodward to beat oncoming traffic, then must slow down as they enter Old Woodward.
“If you come off of big Woodward, you’re faced with a very wide road that needs to slow down coming north into downtown,” Boyle said. “We must deal with this canyon of a road, which is supposed to be a slow road coming into downtown.”
Boyle suggested the possibility of taking on a partial construction project, with part of the Phase 3 project being completed after the city’s master plan is complete.
Emerine agreed. “It would be awful to spend a boat load of money in the south end there and then have to tear it up two years later,” he said. “Maybe it is possible to do what Robin said, to do part of it or not. Then I guess my question is, who decides that? The commission? Do we voice this concern to the commission and tell them what we think of this?”
“I think we just did,” planning board chair Scott Clein said.