Designing a new Portage Street: the front door to Kalamazoo’s emerging health district

Four lanes of fast traffic coming around the curve on Portage make the Washington Square area an unappealing place to walk or bike.

Four lanes of fast traffic coming around the curve on Portage make the Washington Square area an unappealing place to walk or bike.

I spent the past few days in Kalamazoo, taking a hard look at Portage Street with Brad and Rebekah from LSL Planning (our consultants), the city’s community development and engineering staff, and about 50 community members. The city has plans in place to rebuild the street beginning in 2017, making this an ideal time to ask, “How should this street work when we’re done with it?”

For a few months, we’ve been looking at how to support biking, walking, and other options for getting to Kalamazoo Valley Community College’s new healthy living campus.  The campus will be just south of downtown Kalamazoo, nestled in among Bronson Medical Center, Western Michigan University’s new medical school, and the county’s mental health services, which will also be moving to the area.

Portage Street kept coming up as a concern in our conversations with representatives of these various institutions.  Portage is effectively the front door for many of these destinations, a major entry to downtown, and the heart of the Edison Neighborhood—or, at least, it should be. Currently, the street is focused on moving traffic through as quickly as possible, and the neighborhood and traditional business district along it have suffered as a result.

Community members  designed their ideal Portage Street as part of the conversation.

Community members designed their ideal Portage Street as part of the conversation.

Across a 24 hour whirlwind of open houses, presentations, walking tours, drawing, and
data crunching, we found nearly unanimous support for the idea of converting the street from four lanes to three, which would reduce crashes by getting left turns out of the flow of traffic, help keep drivers to the speed limit, smooth some of the curves in the street to handle truck traffic, and free up space for other users of the street.  Most of the conversation focused on how that extra space should be used—bike lanes to support safe access through the neighborhood?  On-street parking for businesses? Wider sidewalks for pedestrians, streetscaping, and sidewalk seating for restaurants? Center medians?

We came out of the workshop with some solid concepts, but also a major caveat: current traffic levels on the street are near the limits of what can be handled in three lanes. As KVCC and their partners in the emerging health and wellness district move towards construction, they’ll need to consider how they’re getting staff, students, and visitors in and out—if everybody shows up by car, the resulting traffic will likely overwhelm a three-lane version of Portage Street.

Kelly Clarke discusses the Kalamazoo County Land Bank properties along Portage, and how the street affects their business attraction efforts.

Kelly Clarke discusses the Kalamazoo County Land Bank properties along Portage, and how the street affects their business attraction efforts.

This is a great example of how placemaking is more complex than simply, “if you do this, then that will happen,” and must involve the active participation of community stakeholders: turning Portage Street into a multimodal corridor will both support new business and housing development on the doorstep of the new KVCC campus and also enable people to get around the area by walking, biking, and transit—modes fitting the health mission of the campus—but if the college were not at the table as an enthusiastic participant in this process, their development would itself inhibit the city from making a change to the street.

Fortunately, KVCC is not only at the table, but hosting it, and our next step will be to take them both the draft concepts from this workshop for further discussion, as well as some recommendations about how they can support a broad range of options for people coming to and from the new campus.