Jury still out on streetscape design


Bethany Beach citizens and town council members were presented with information on and a direct comparison of two plans for the planned Streetscape project for Bethany Beach’s Garfield Parkway this week, at a Dec. 10 special meeting of the council.
Coastal Point • SUBMITTED: Above, a sketch of the Scheme 4 plan for the proposed Streetscape project in Bethany Beach. Below, the modified version of the Scheme 2 plan.Coastal Point • SUBMITTED:
Above, a sketch of the Scheme 4 plan for the proposed Streetscape project in Bethany Beach. Below, the modified version of the Scheme 2 plan.

Judging by questions and comments from both groups, the core response to both of the plans may be: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

The re-examination of the project came as Delaware Department of Transportation officials told the town they wanted an unconditional endorsement of a design before DelDOT would consider the project. The existing plan didn’t meeting that mark of being unconditionally endorsed, and council members wanted to revisit it and one other design before taking any action.

Indeed, council members this week responded rather dubiously to what had been the initial plan developed in coordination with the Beautification Committee (a subcommittee of the Planning Commission) back in 2001.

Scheme 4 — A History
Coastal Point • SUBMITTEDCoastal Point • SUBMITTED

That plan itself — previously designated as Scheme 4 — was the product of a series of public meetings to select among three initial beautification plans created by design firm Slater Associates.

Current Planning Commission Chairman (and, back in 2001, a member of the Beautification Committee) Phil Boesch presented the case for Scheme 4, emphasizing that it had been the result of cherry-picking by the committee members and the general public from among a series of objective derived from the original three schemes.

“This was not generated by the Planning Commission or the Beautification Committee but by a room full of people. And I recognize a lot of those faces here today,” Boesch said in opening his presentation.

Though the initial intent of the designs was to improve the aesthetics of the Garfield Parkway streetscape, Boesch emphasized that Slater Associates had a certain amount of professional expertise in dealing with traffic and other concerns related to the larger project.

But none of the three plans satisfied the assembled groups back in 2001 and 2002, Boesch allowed. Instead, compromises led to a development of a list of criteria:

• To improve the appearance of the streetscape, creating an “entry atmosphere” rather than that of a street just intended for travel;

• To relieve sidewalk congestion;

• To protect the street’s business community — primarily through protecting parking as much as possible; the fear being that if parking is lost, the “high-end” businesses would soon move out, leaving the commercial district filled with boarded-up storefronts and T-shirt shops; and

• To control traffic.

To meet those goals, the assembled group — largely by show of hands at an Oct. 27, 2001, meeting — opted for something beyond clearing up visual clutter (such as utility poles and trash cans). They put forward a one-lane roadway concept, initially set at just 16 feet in width, and maintaining the existing parallel parking at the cost of eliminating the existing bicycle lane.

The one-lane idea was intended to encourage a parking-lot mentality, rather than that of a through street. And Boesch said it was also difficult to keep bicycles in a bicycle lane where pedestrians often stood to cross a road and delivery trucks often parked to make their deliveries. It was, in fact, safer to encourage them to integrate with the vehicular traffic, he said.

To smooth traffic flow at the often-chaotic Garfield Parkway-Atlantic Avenue intersection, the majority of those present at the Oct. 27, 2001, meeting favored a traffic circle, Boesch said. It was a narrow preference, he admitted, primarily along geographical lines. Those from New Jersey had had bad experiences with traffic circles, while those from the Washington, D.C., area liked them. And those from New Jersey had been in the minority.

Both elements — the traffic circle and the one-lane road — have remained the source of concern from a variety of people in the town. Others have adamantly opposed the loss of the bicycle lane, from both a bicyclist’s perspective and more generalized concern about safety.

But it was largely the width of the vehicular travel lane that has kept the plan from moving forward. It was put forward by the Planning Commission for town council vote in what some have said was not a true “endorsement” in what records indicate was a 4-1 vote rather than the unanimous endorsement Boesch remembered it being given.

Similarly, the Town Council at that time unanimously agreed to move forward with the plan, but semantics have caused intense debate as to whether the vote was an “endorsement” of the design or mere agreement to proffer it to the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) as a loose concept that could allow the process of obtaining grants to move forward.

Concerns remain

Either way, it was far from unconditional. Concern about the width of the travel lane pushed the initial 16-foot design up to 18 feet, to better accommodate the ladder trucks of the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Company (BBVFC).

There, too, has been considerable debate about the collective memory of how things happened. Some recall the change as a nod to the input of then-fire company President Wilbert Powell. But Powell himself has since said that he considers 20 feet — not 18 — the minimum space needed, to allow for both the extension of the trucks’ support legs and room for firefighters to work around them.

It was further suggested this week that the requirement had been stated in the format of a 16-foot travel lane, supported by a 4-foot bicycle lane — totaling 20 feet. But with the bicycle lane eliminated in Scheme 4, in favor of preserving parallel parking, that formulation isn’t viable.

Boesch emphasized that Scheme 4, in allowing for parallel parking, was offering additional flexibility to the 18-foot travel lane it calls for, since most cars don’t park on the extreme outer border of such a spot and there is generally space left between parked cars. But that answer failed to satisfy Powell and others in attendance.

The fire company has also expressed concerns about the circle — not for the traffic impact but rather for its design of a raised center, with some 2 to 5 inches of rise from edge to center. Boesch has said that similar circles elsewhere are easily traversed by emergency vehicles, but the local firefighters have opposed the idea.

Council skeptical

With the floor open to a series of questions from current council members, Boesch was forced to defend a number of the elements in Scheme 4.

Vice-Mayor Carol Olmstead questioned how bicyclists would be integrated with vehicular traffic. Boesch said that without a marked bicycle lane, they would just become part of the traffic automatically. He said the “parking lot mentality” intended to be encouraged by the design would remind drivers they had to share the road.

But Olmstead said she thought the situation would be very dangerous for bicyclists.

Council Member Lew Killmer said the e-mail commentary the council had received on Scheme 4 had been filled with comments that citizens wanted to keep the bike lane.

Boesch questioned whether those people had tried to ride bicycles on Garfield Parkway and allowed that perhaps they had simply had a different experience in doing so that he and others had had, with the lane blocked by trucks, pedestrians and doors from parked cars.

Council Member Jerry Dorfman was critical of the traffic circle, saying that its planned location at Garfield and Atlantic was perhaps not the equivalent of a four-way traffic flow that was Boesch’s model for success elsewhere.

Wayne Fuller, the only council member still serving from the 2001 council and a member of the BBVFC, said his concerns about the circle were indeed about the proposed raised design being unfriendly to the company’s trucks. Boesch allowed that a textured, “rumble-strip” type surface, in lieu of a rise, might be a reasonable compromise for that concern.

Council Member Harold Steele questioned one of the basic intentions of the design — to slow traffic. Were all that many people really going that fast in the downtown area, he asked Boesch.

Boesch replied that the speeds were relatively fast, perhaps 20 miles per hour, when one considered cars, bicycles and pedestrians were moving in and out of the area as well.

Steele also focused on the BBVFC’s suggested minimum lane width, referring to a letter Powell recently wrote on the issue and the suggested combined 20-foot width of travel and bicycle lanes.

Boesch said he believed the parallel parking allowed enough flexibility in terms of room for the ladder trucks that it wouldn’t be a problem.

Olmstead jumped back into the fray, questioning whether it wouldn’t automatically result in a backup onto Route 1 or Route 26 as cars enter the downtown area if the design had the aim of a reduction of traffic flow without an inherent reduction in the number of vehicles trying to access the area.

Boesch said he believed that as people got used to the area being less traffic-friendly, drivers would choose to avoid it and use the town’s side streets instead, again emphasizing a parking-lot or destination mentality instead of using Garfield Parkway as a through-street.

Killmer took issue with that notion, saying the learning curve for it was a bit steep, with many visitors only being in the town for a week or two each summer. The traffic problem itself, he said, was only an issue two months out of the year. He said he also thought the result would be a backup onto Route 1.

Another view

Town Manager Cliff Graviet and the Town Council brought in Mike Rothenheiber of JMT Engineering for a two-fold purpose: 1) to update and present one of the original three designs for the Garfield Parkway streetscape project (originally known as Scheme 2); and to provide a traffic engineer’s perspective on that new “alternative plan” as well as Scheme 4.

JMT performed a pedestrian and bicycle traffic study for the town in August of 2003 and 2004, and council members have been eager to have that information factored in to the realities of any potential Streetscape plan before giving that needed unconditional endorsement.

Rothenheiber himself has 20 years of experience in the traffic engineering field, as well as five years put into Rehoboth Beach’s downtown streetscape project, which is now nearing completion.

In light of those credentials, Rothenheiber started off with the problems the Garfield Parkway area experiences during the summer and the elements that cause them.

Problems are real

Addressing sidewalk congestion, Rothenheiber said the usable sidewalk width on Garfield Parkway is currently a modest 6 to 8 feet.

“That’s way too small for a residential community, let alone a main street,” Rothenheiber said. The paved sidewalk stretches about 15 feet in the area, he allowed, but utility poles and guy wires make it functionally much narrower. And no one walks right up against buildings, he asserted.

During the summer, the downtown area sees as much traffic as Rehoboth Beach or the University of Delaware campus has in students, Rothenheiber noted. That’s some 32,000 pedestrian crossings at Garfield and Atlantic in a 12-hour period, according to the JMT study. A full third of those people cross Garfield and Pennsylvania.]

Similarly high numbers of bicycle trips cross the two intersections — some 1,500 at Atlantic and 1,100 at Pennsylvania. (On a positive note, he said only 450 ventured across Route 1, reducing some potential safety concerns there.)

Rothenheiber verified the need for concern about parking in the heat of the summer season, noting from the study that 90 to 100 percent of the downtown parking places were taken on a summer’s afternoon — functionally all of them.

Before diving into a head-to-head analysis of the two design schemes, Rothenheiber emphasized some elements of the process that will need to be followed to get DelDOT approval and/or funding for any streetscape project:

• A level-of-service (LOS) analysis, taking into account safety, traffic flow and operational concerns;

• Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance, calling for ramps, sidewalk slopes and different parking space locations if any major changes are made, no matter the base design; and

• Utility company cooperation for the moving or burying of any utility lines, about which Rothenheiber was cautionary, urging the town not to issue utility companies a “blank check” to get such changes made.

Rothenheiber said all of those elements would have to be tackled to DelDOT’s satisfaction before even the engineering phase of a project could be started. He recommended the project be formally studied by a professional engineer who would take a holistic approach to the situation, as a next step by the town.

Side-by-side:
The Plans Compared

Now

Travel lanes: Two, 11 feet wide, in each direction

Pedestrian facilities: 15 feet wide, 6-8 feet usable

Mini-circle: None

Parking: 192 spaces

Bicycle lane: 4 feet wide, between travel lanes and parallel parking

Traffic circulation: single-lane travel with entry/exit from/to travel lanes in other lane; delivery trucks parked and obstructing one lane; high pedestrian and bicycle interaction with vehicular traffic

Scheme 4

Travel lanes: One, 18 feet wide in each direction — except between Route 1 and Pennsylvania Avenue, where there would be a single 16-foot lane westbound and two lanes eastbound

Pedestrian facilities: 22 feet wide, 16-18 feet usable

Mini-circle: Garfield & Atlantic, exterior radius: 50 feet (Rehoboth Beach uses a larger “roundabout” with a 50-foot interior radius); JMT analysis: mini-circle not recommended for the intersection

Parking: 185 spaces.

Bicycle lane: none proposed; bicycle traffic integrated with vehicles; JMT analysis: bicyclists need the extra protection of a separate lane, particularly with vacation traffic and the resulting scattered attention

Traffic circulation: single-lane travel with entry/exit from/to travel lane; delivery trucks parked and obstructing the only lane; high pedestrian and bicycle interaction with vehicular traffic; additionally, JMT said the success of the effort to move through-traffic to side streets was not something that could be predicted but forecast it would not succeed; JMT also had concerns that a single 18-foot travel lane would result in drivers attempting to drive as if there were two lanes; Rothenheiber also cautioned that a backup onto Route 1 and/or Route 26 was likely and something DelDOT would never permit as a potential result of any proposed project

Scheme 2 (modified)

Travel lanes: Two, 11 feet wide, in each direction, between angled parking and a bicycle lane

Pedestrian facilities: 24 feet wide, 18-20 feet usable

Mini-circle: As modified, none proposed. Rothenheiber said circles are not recommended when more than one lane of traffic comes from each direction

Parking: 178 spaces (modification from the original Scheme 2 includes elimination of proposed parking on Christian Church property, in accordance with church statements on the idea)

Bicycle lane: 3 feet wide, between sidewalk curb and travel lane

Traffic circulation: single-lane travel with entry/exit from/to travel lanes in other lane; delivery trucks parked and obstructing one lane; high pedestrian and bicycle interaction with vehicular traffic (the same problems as exist now)

Public: Just make it prettier

Public comment rounded out the Dec. 10 meeting, and the tone was a clearer tone of rejection for the previously touted Scheme 4.

Powell, noting he was no longer officially speaking for the BBVFC, voiced a preference for a two-lane concept but reiterated that he had asked for a minimum of 20 feet for firefighters to work with, regardless.

He did point out that the Office of the State Fire Marshal (OSFM) requires a minimum of 25 feet of width in a primary emergency access road and said it would be up to the local firefighters to make a recommendation on the issue and the OSFM could agree to the lesser width as part of the approval process. (The town’s alleys are too narrow to qualify as a secondary access, mandating a wider width on primary access routes.)

Resident Phil Rossi said he preferred the roadway be left as it is, particularly objecting to the traffic circle and noting his bad experience with them in New Jersey. He also said the circle could pose some issues for the annual Fourth of July Parade, of which he is the chairman.

Property owner Cliff Hardwick, noting his experience as a safety, traffic and engineering litigator, declared both Scheme 4 and Scheme 2 (modified) as dangerous to the pedestrians and people of Bethany Beach.

“The idea of taking away the bike lane is so irresponsible as to border on insanity,” he declared.

He said he felt the alternative scheme was a “knee-jerk reaction” to problems with Scheme 4. As with many in attendance at the meeting, he favored the moving or burying of the utility poles and other eyesores, but beyond that, he said if it wasn’t broken, the town shouldn’t try to fix it. His suggestion of leaving the basic traffic design alone was greeted with applause.

Bethany West resident Elliot Flick noted he was a bicyclist and said he believed bicyclists would just end up riding on the sidewalks — rather than in with traffic — if the bicycle lane were removed.

Restaurateur Dana Banks (The Parkway) spoke for the downtown business community, which she said had met to discuss the plans and their reaction to them. Scheme 4’s efforts to reduce traffic would be counterproductive, she said, for business owners wanted to maximize the number of people able to drive by to see their businesses and patronize them.

Lack of parking close to Garfield Parkway was already the major source of customer complaints, she said, opposing any reduction in parking. She said no one had ever complained the sidewalks weren’t wide enough. The proposed traffic circle she deemed potentially “devastating,” noting how difficult it would be to see pedestrians or bicyclists on the other side of it.

As for the revised Scheme 2, Banks said that design was better, but added that even the potential reduction of parking by a dozen or more parallel-parking spaces would be devastating to the business community, despite Rothenheiber’s description of the variations in parking between the current situation and both designs as “a wash.”

“Fourteen spots is not a wash,” she said.

Banks said the parallel spots were also favored by those with large vehicles, handicaps and children, which are not so easily accommodated by the angled parking areas.

Sea Crest owner Brian McKenny said he also had concerns about his patrons needing more parking closer to the boardwalk-neighboring business. They are predominantly elderly and already complain about how difficult it is to find a space nearby, he said.

McKenny proposed that any changes be small and gradual, phasing in elements and evaluating their effect before further changes were made.

Resident Dennis Cleary questioned the need for such big changes for a problem that exists eight weeks of the year. He said he also had concerns about the traffic circle, commenting that “the rules of engagement” for traffic circles were simply not clear to all drivers. He also inquired as to the potential cost of the project, questioning where its place was among other town priorities.

Restaurateur Dick Heidenberger (Bethany Blues, Mango’s, Dickey’s Frozen Custard) said he applauded the original intent of the committee to help beautify the area, but said the moving of utility poles would go a long way toward that end. He also invoked former Town Council Member Jane Fowler (not present at the meeting), passing along her opposition to the removal of parallel parking.

Bethany Surf Shop owner Jim McGrath said he thought the original consensus of ideas for the beautification had been lost: 1) to relocate utility poles; 2) to not lose parking; and 3) to beautify by removing some eyesores and adding plantings. He also championed the cause of the bike lane – but not as just for bicycle travel.

“I’ve always called it ‘the little bit of extra space on Garfield Parkway lane,’” McGrath said. “Everybody uses it.” He said families with strollers routinely stand in it while waiting to cross the street because it means drivers can see kids better than between parked cars. The delivery drivers, he said, use it so they take up a little less of the travel lane when parked. “That little extra space is greatly needed,” he added.

McGrath also touted the financial importance of the parking spaces, noting their ability to regularly turn over customers for both the downtown businesses and the town’s parking fees.

Resident John Barber fell in with those proposing slow change, saying he didn’t see the issue as a crisis for the town. “We can improve what we’ve got,” he said, suggesting the moving of the utility poles and enforcement of skateboard bans on the sidewalks.

Former Mayor Joseph McHugh said he agreed with most of what had been said but noted that he though the town should consider parking rules that would favor smaller cars over larger ones in the Garfield Parkway area.

Perhaps most controversial among the comments were those of Garfield Parkway property owner Art Antal, who emphasized that the town had seen a large increase in business without an accompanying increase in the amount of parking space.

He proposed the town take a page out of the book of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision and consider using eminent domain to take land the Christian Church might not give up willingly, to be used as additional parking. He added that, alternatively, perhaps the church would even show some charity to the town and offer a small amount of land for such use.

Responding to the criticism of Scheme 4 as he had presented it, Boesch commented that the crowd present for this week’s meeting was clearly a different one than had participated in the original 2001-2002 meetings on the Streetscape project. He restated his concern about the loss of parking seen under Scheme 2.

Perspective and plans

Mayor Jack Walsh praised Boesch’s work on the project and said he believed that if the information from the JMT traffic study had been available to the committee back in 2001, the plan presented by Boesch would have likely been very different.

He said Boesch’s efforts and those of other committee members had really raised the idea for the townsfolk that something needed to be done with Garfield Parkway.

Concluding the meeting, Steele said he felt there was a lot that needed to be done on the issue at a future time. He said he favored incremental ideas, such as the moving of utility lines, before larger steps that included the removal of parking were taken.

Killmer followed on that first point, proposing the council delay taking any action on the Streetscape issue until the next council meeting, set for Dec. 16. The council members unanimously agreed, giving themselves at least a week to digest the information and viewpoints presented at the 2.5-hour meeting.