Street Design as Economic Development
Transforming Lancaster Boulevard

No one can dispute the importance of transforming disinvested, automobiledominated streets into vibrant, walkable places. Such transformations not only enrich a city’s civic life, but also mediate economic inequalities by creating public spaces for one and all. However, such initiatives also take significant economic investment. Transforming the infrastructure, mobility and landscape of a street, however compelling, has direct implications on a city’s financial resources. Changing a conduit for cars into a great outdoor common is never an inexpensive proposition. This means that street transformation projects must essentially be understood as strategic economic investments that should yield positive socio-cultural as well as lucrative financial returns. If one idea of a successful street emerges from its spatial ability to seamlessly accommodate diverse entities – from pedestrians and vendors to cars and trees – then another dimension of success stems from a transformed street’s financial legacy. At the end of the day, all cities are gigantic social and political as well as economic engines and street design needs to be contextualised within these realities, however different they may be across societies. ‘The Boulevard’ in the City of Lancaster in California, USA, exemplifies how strategic financial investment in a select street, coupled with progressive urban design and economic development efforts, can transform a city’s daily life and national image. The project was completed in 2010, during the economic downturn in the United States. Over the next few years, it went on to receive the National Award for Smart Growth - Overall Excellence, from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the Excellence in Planning Implementation Award from the American Institute of Architects (California Chapter). All these awards consistently recognised the design simplicity, financial modesty and transformative effect of this effort. That a modest desert city could dramatically augment its prosperity index through street

design makes The Boulevard a precedent for other cities in the United States and beyond. What follows is a recollection of the key aspects of this project, from my standpoint as a member of the urban design consultant team. What were the behind-the-scenes processes that led to the eventual implementation of The Boulevard? What were the challenges along the way? What were its successes versus compromises? What are the most important takeaways?

1. Selective Investment: In 2008, a year before the consultant team was commissioned, City of Lancaster municipal officials had already reached some important conclusions. They had just completed a new Specific Plan for their Downtown and one of the plan’s propositions involved the up-zoning of their historic Main Street, Lancaster Boulevard. Within the economic downturn, however, only one local developer showed interest in building along what was then a wide, uninspiring, asphalted thoroughfare lined with modest local businesses within one- and two-storey buildings. The City therefore decided to redirect its available State re-development funds towards transforming the 2/3 mile-long stretch of the historic Main Street, in the hope that reviving its former glory would reap positive results. The point is that the urban designers were brought into the picture after a number of intelligent and important decisions had already been made.

2. Outreach and Civic Pride: In tandem with our initial discussions on alternative design schemes, City staff were engaged in an outreach effort with the businesses along Lancaster Boulevard, as well as the larger community. In the United States, all planning projects are mandated to have community input and public opinion can make or break a project’s destiny. City staff created posters and organised public events to educate the community about the benefits of this street transformation. After six months of outreach, it was clear that there was unanimous community support. Multi-generational families and businesses within and around downtown remembered how their once walkable Main

 

Street had been ravaged by auto-centric planning. They wanted their old street back. This sense of civic pride and community enthusiasm was crucial to the project’s success and the City’s efforts in garnering it is an important lesson that other cities can learn from.

3. A Candidate for a Street-Diet: Lancaster Boulevard has a right-of-way (distance between the property lines) of 100 feet, with buildings having no setback. Sidewalks on either side were 10 feet wide with intermittent trees, some unhealthy. There was parallel on-street parking on both sides, with five travel lanes, including a central turn lane. It was clear from traffic studies that the roadway width far exceeded its modest traffic volume. The presence of a continuous street grid around this Main Street meant that traffic had various circulation routes within downtown. It would therefore be possible to narrow the right-of-way and slow down traffic
speeds without disrupting efficient traffic flow. Lancaster Boulevard was a good candidate for a street-diet.

4. Urban Design within Financial Limits: To respect the project’s modest budget of around $11 million, it was decided to keep intact the sidewalk curbs and existing parallel parking for the entire eight-block length. It would have been ideal to have sidewalks wider than 10 feet in a commercial district, but breaking and rebuilding street curbs is the most expensive aspect of a streetscape project. The only change to the sidewalks was a new tree planting scheme to augment its landscape. Vehicular circulation was narrowed to a single 12 feet wide travel lane on each side. The central three travel lanes were redesigned as a curb-less, paved, pedestrian zone. This zone was striped for angled parking, with a linear arrangement of intermittent light poles, street furniture and, most importantly, a double

row of trees to create a much-needed shaded zone in the hot desert city. The central zone now became an eight-block-long La Rambla of sorts. Roundabouts and gateway features were designed for either end of the street to accentuate the transitions and slow down entering traffic.

5. A Flexible Street: Graphics by the urban design team showed the community how this simple design would create a malleable street. On weekdays, the central zone would be occupied by cars, doubling parking availability within easy reach of all the street’s businesses. During select days, specific lengths of the street could be closed to traffic. The central zone could be vacated of cars and converted into a Farmers Market, with trucks in the parallel parking stalls along the curb and tents occupying the travel lane. The central zone would now become a space for people to socialise. During festive events, such as the City’s
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annual Alfalfa Festival, the travel lane could be used as a parade path, with the central zone converted to a spectator space. The principal urban design idea was to create a flexible street that would accommodate a variety of uses and activities at different times.

6. Phased Implementation: Construction Documents for the project were completed in Summer 2009 and construction began in Winter 2009. Most of the construction workforce was from the City of Lancaster, exemplifying an important economic strategy to create jobs during an economic downturn. Approximately 1,100 temporary construction jobs were triggered during the project’s implementation. To minimise disruption for the existing businesses, construction was completed in three phases, in increments of two- and three-block lengths from one end of the street to the other

 

Within eight months, Lancaster Boulevard was a changed street.

7. Pragmatics and Compromises: There were some challenges during the construction process. For example, old water pipes directly beneath the centre line of this historic street had never been documented and emerged as a surprise during the installation of light poles within the central zone. The pipes were close to the surface and consequently the light pole foundations had to be made wider, raising their cost. Despite this challenge, City staff chose to retain the light poles within the central zone, maintaining the approved vision. They revisited the project’s financial breakdown and redistributed the funds. Proposed elements such as the roundabouts and gateway features were kept for a later stage. The City prioritised the project’s qualitative aspects over its strictly utilitarian implementation.

8. Catalysing New Development: During the entire implementation process, City staff was in constant negotiation with developers about infilling vacant parcels with new projects along the street. Even before The Boulevard was officially complete, modest new projects began to break ground. Within five years since it’s opening, over 800 housing units and over 116,000 square feet of commercial space had been constructed or rehabilitated. Additionally, new public amenities including the 13.5-acre American Heroes Park and the 19,246-squarefoot, three-storey, Lancaster Museum of Art & History (MOAH) have changed not just the street’s public image and experience but further raised its economic potential. 9. Return on Investment: Figures determined using the 2012 California
Redevelopment Association’s IMPLAN Jobs Calculator indicated an impressive return on investment: With a project cost of approximately $11.5 million (per-block cost of approximately $1.27 million) The Boulevard had generated an estimated $273 million in economic output, with private investment estimated at $130 million. It had attracted 49 businesses since late 2009. Over 800 permanent jobs had been created. Revenue from the downtown area was up 96% compared to 2007, the year before revitalisation efforts began. Due to the transformed street, while Lancaster’s assessed property valuation fell 1.25% overall from 2011 to 2012, property values in the downtown area had risen 9.53%.

10. An Inspiring Legacy: Today, the legacy of The Boulevard goes beyond strictly financial numbers. At a practical level, the overall number of traffic collisions have been cut in half, while injury-related collisions have plummeted 85% as a result of the new streetscape and traffic pattern (these figures compare the two years prior to the street transformation with the two years following). But far more importantly, there is a renewed pride among the community that now gathers every Thursday on the new street for its weekly Farmers Market. My conversations with community members over the past year have revealed the continuing sense of pride for what has now become a definitive destination. There is a sign along the freeway titled ‘The Boulevard’ announcing its presence regionally. There are other lessons The Boulevard project offers. An obvious one is that streets within a district or city are not all the same and do not deserve the same attention. There are ‘A’ streets that create great social destinations, ‘B’

streets that may be more generic and even ‘C’ streets that absorb the city’s service-oriented uses. While none of these streets should neglect the pedestrian, they need not all be impeccably designed public spaces. The conscious design of a few select streets can transform them into iconic destinations, precisely because of their contrast with other proximate streets. How and why one selects specific streets for transformation is therefore as important as the design of the street itself. The City of Lancaster officials deserve to be particularly applauded in this regard. Another significant lesson is in the project’s integrated and collaborative planning process, with public officials, private consultants, stakeholders and community members working together as well as on parallel tracks to deliberate and negotiate a common vision. In such collaborative processes, all are visionaries and enablers at once: Were it not for the City’s visionary decision to invest in their dilapidated Main Street, were it not for the community’s enthusiastic support, were it not for the urban designers’ innovative design within
a modest budget, and were it not for the City’s impeccable coordination in implementing the project in eight months, The Boulevard would never have happened. Finally, one cannot underestimate the power of place-specific design. The Boulevard’s iconic eight-block long double sycamore tree canopy, its most conspicuous feature, is not a whimsical design gesture, but a practical move to create much needed shade in a desert city. The idea of investing in trees rather than expensive lighting or furniture must therefore be understood as a conscious mediation between budgetary constraints with the fundamental realisms of Lancaster’s daily life. Balancing aesthetic delight with local pragmatism is what good design is all about. In this sense, The Boulevard, as urban design, must not be mistaken as a pattern to be literally replicated in other cities, but rather as an approach about reflecting on, empathising with, and celebrating the specific climate, culture and rituals of a place.

 

Acknowledgements:  The author would like to thank Jason Caudle, City Manager, City of Lancaster for his advice and comments on this essay, and Tamara Heimlich (TLP Architectural) for the use of her aerial photos of ‘The Boulevard’. The consultant team included: Moule & Polyzoides (Lead Consultants; Urban Design & Architecture)   Elizabeth Moule, David Sargent, Vinayak Bharne, Jason Claypool, Andrejs Galenieks, Orlando Gonzalez, Peter VanderWal Fong Hart Schneider (Landscape Architecture) David Schneider Swift & Associates (Parking & Transportation Design)  Peter Swift Urban Advantage (Photo Transformations)   Steve Price