First, a brief history lesson. Woodward Avenue , a multi-lane road that stretches over 27 miles, making its way through 11 communities, dates back to 1805 when it was originally platted. In 1909, responding to demand for smoother roads by bicyclists and early auto owners, the first mile of concrete highway in the world was laid. Referred to as metropolitan Detroit’s “Main Street”, Woodward Avenue paves a rich story that is intrinsically connected to Detroit’s legacy as a growing commercial center and as birth place of the American automobile industry. Over the span of a century, as the automobile industry accelerated, so did the development of Woodward Avenue, spurring new businesses and retail growth along its path. In 1999, it was designated a Michigan Heritage Route because of its more than 300 historic sites. It plays host to one of the most iconic celebrations of the car culture – the Woodward Dream Cruise.
To facilitate continued improvement of the Woodward Avenue Corridor, The Woodward Avenue Action Association was founded in 1996. Always a magnet for investors and developers over the course of its history, Woodward Avenue continues to evolve with a changing culture. After decades of focusing on building roads and streets for the automobile, Michigan, like so many places around the country and world, is looking at communities differently and placing more emphasis on building them around people. This transformational thinking has placed Michigan as one of the leaders in adopting Complete Streets concepts – plans that will embrace all users of the road – pedestrians, the physically challenged, bicyclists, transit users, as well as drivers. The Woodward Avenue Association has embarked on an ambitious program to redesign and reshape Woodward Avenue into a Complete Street and is leading a design team made up of representatives from each of the 11 communities, MDOT, a team of consultants, and various other organizations. My colleague, Luke Forrest, serves on this team. The goal is to “develop standards and policies to increase the livability of Woodward and its surrounding communities and business districts; as well as to make the All American Road function efficiently and safely for residents, as well as visitors to the region.” Dan Burden, Executive Director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute and world renowned walkability expert working on the project, calls it a “great laboratory and a grand opportunity to be an example of change for the future.”
A series of 5 Charrettes are being held in various host communities. Each one takes place over a span of 3 days and invites residents and stakeholders to drop in any time during designated hours to participate in walkability audits, interactive design workshops, or listen to scheduled presentations. This week, my colleague Liz Shaw and I took part in the walkability audit in Birmingham, one of the host cities. It was a very open and welcoming setting, allowing us to become immediately engaged in the process. Simultaneously, lots of discussions and the poring over of maps and designs were happening throughout the room.
With the second in a series of five interactive community events just wrapping up, some themes are emerging: the need to use color and plants to enliven the right-of-way for all forms of transit users; the need to strategically use the preserving and adding of trees as safe buffers between cars, pedestrians and bicyclists; and the need to reduce the speed of cars to foster a more safe environment. (Although it sounds counterintuitive, by decreasing the number of lanes, you calm the traffic without reducing capacity. Burden affirmed this by saying that “we squander success when we have an overabundance of lanes.”)
The first phase of the project hopes to wrap up this fall and a cohesive plan should begin to emerge for all of Woodward Avenue in early 2014. Get engaged and follow Transform Woodward’s progress. To make it really easy, you can download an app and provide your own ideas. Woodward Avenue has shown resilience throughout the ages, growing to accommodate the needs of the automobile. Now it has the opportunity to accommodate the demands of a 21st century economy and lifestyle.