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February 13, 2013

Berkley officials discuss potential changes to Coolidge

By Jeremy Selweski
C & G Staff Writer

BERKLEY — City officials hope to use the results of a new traffic study of Coolidge Highway, between 11 and 12 Mile roads, to navigate the delicate balance of improving pedestrian safety and creating a more business-friendly environment without causing excessive traffic and congestion.

During a Feb. 4 work session, the Berkley City Council heard a presentation by engineers from Hubbell, Roth & Clark and representatives from LSL Planning about the traffic study. No decisions were made, but members of council agreed that the city needs to work on developing a plan for improving Coolidge.

In July, the council unanimously approved a $7,946 contract to perform the study, largely in response to business owners along Coolidge, who have been vocal for more than a year about their desire to give the area a more traditional downtown look and feel.

According to Brad Strader, president and managing partner for LSL Planning, the focus of the study was to find ways to make Coolidge more walkable for pedestrians, more friendly for bicyclists, safer for all types of transit, and easier for on-street parking. The study also sought ways to accomplish these goals while adding more on-street parking, or at least not losing any existing spaces.

Still, Strader admitted that it could prove challenging to give business owners everything they want. “There’s not really one thing that can be done to slow vehicles down dramatically,” he told the council. “But if you layer three, four or five different things … then I think you could probably drop the traffic speeds 3 to 5 mph, which I think would make a noticeable difference.”

Strader pointed out that the current traffic volume on Coolidge is more than 20,000 vehicles per day. Coolidge business owners have been pushing to narrow the road from four lanes to three, but Strader explained that this option typically only works on roads that have 12,000 vehicles per day or fewer.

Colleen Hill-Stramsak, transportation project engineer for Hubbell, Roth & Clark, added that reducing Coolidge to three lanes would likely cause severe traffic backups during peak hours. According to the traffic study, a three-lane version of Coolidge would increase traffic backup on southbound Coolidge at 12 Mile from 350 feet to 1,400 feet and from 350 feet to 1,800 feet on northbound Coolidge at 11 Mile. This scenario could cause major problems for emergency vehicles that are trying to make it to Royal Oak Beaumont Hospital.

Because of this heightened congestion, she said, “During your peak traffic hours, you would generally see 10 to 15 percent of your traffic diverted to other routes. Some people are not going to sit through a 5- or 6-minute backup; they’ll just go around.” She added that Coolidge is not quite wide enough to incorporate bicycle lanes into any future improvement plans.

Hill-Stramsak noted that those involved with the study were surprised by some of the results, especially when they found so many indicators that reducing the number of lanes would be a bad idea.

“Brad and I were both going into this thinking that the three-lane option would be the best,” she said. “I’m a Berkley resident, so I was really rooting for that. Instead, we came up with a hybrid option that looks at different treatments for different areas.”

Strader and Hill-Stramsak proposed keeping Coolidge at four lanes but narrowing each lane from 12 feet to 11 feet, which would allow the on-street parking lanes to be extended from an average width of 7 feet to 8 feet each. They also recommended eliminating the dedicated left-turn lane at Wiltshire Road in order to create more on-street parking spaces and reduce the number of locations where the road tapers inward, which can be difficult for motorists to navigate. In addition, Strader suggested adding more vertical objects like trees and streetlights, which he said are known to have the effect of slowing motorists down.

The city could also consider installing pedestrian crosswalks at intersections that do not have traffic signals — like those in downtown Royal Oak and downtown Birmingham — but Strader was not a proponent of this option.

“You have to have enough pedestrians crossing there for it to be a place that motorists pay attention to,” he said. “If you put in an unsignalized crosswalk at a place where pedestrians are pretty rare, (motorists) won’t be expecting them, and you actually end up giving the pedestrians a false sense of security.”

Most members of council refrained from voicing strong opinions on where the city should go next, but Councilwoman Lisa Platt Auensen expressed fervent support for the business owners along Coolidge.

“This area is actually part of our downtown, but it doesn’t feel like part of our downtown,” she said. “It doesn’t have the same speed and street treatment and level of comfort as the rest of our downtown. If we want to commit to this as being a business district, then it needs to be accessible to everyone and not just through-traffic. It needs to be safe to cross the street, and right now, it’s not safe going from one side to the other.”

Platt Auensen suggested that her colleagues look at what some of Berkley’s neighbors have done to develop their downtown districts. In order to prevent Nine Mile Road from being used as a cut-through by motorists, Ferndale narrowed it from four lanes to two and lowered the speed limit. Royal Oak took a different strategy with Main Street by installing numerous traffic lights, but it achieved the same result of slowing traffic and making the area a popular destination.

“While this (traffic) study addressed general safety for things like parked cars, I think it left out one of our major objectives,” Platt Auensen said. “We need to either commit to (Coolidge) as being part of our downtown and do our job of providing the infrastructure to make it successful and safe, or we need to say (to business owners), ‘We just can’t make it work on Coolidge Highway. You no longer have to pay any of the DDA taxes; we release you from that. If you want to have a business in Berkley that requires foot traffic, then let us help you find a spot on 12 Mile.’”

Council members Dan Terbrack and Steve Baker stressed the importance of discussing the issue with all those who may be affected by it: not only the Coolidge business owners, but also the Berkley Downtown Development Authority, Planning Commission and Public Safety Department, as well as city residents.

“We are still at the very beginning of a process that is going to take considerable time and discussion among all the different stakeholders,” Terbrack said. “Everybody wants what’s best for Berkley. We’re all on the same team here; it’s just a matter of how we actually get there. Determining philosophically what is best for Berkley, I think that’s where we’re going to have the biggest differences of opinion on what we want to see. … There’s never going to be a solution that’s perfect for everyone. That’s why, when we take on a very serious issue like this … it has to be something that’s going to benefit the entire city, not just a knee-jerk reaction because we had a study done.”

City Manager Jane Bais-DiSessa recommended that the council schedule another work session to develop more specific solutions for Coolidge, and each member agreed. Mayor Phil O’Dwyer pointed out, though, that it will be important for everyone involved to keep an open mind.

“We do not want to set limits on this process; we want to be open to what is best for our city, best for our community and best for our businesses,” he said. “This is an important journey that we are about to begin now to craft a vision for safety and for all users on Coolidge Highway, and also so that the needs of our businesses are met. I’m excited about this journey going forward and the variety of thoughts and perspectives — and the enthusiasm and passion — that come with this undertaking.”

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Jeremy Selweski at jSelweski@candgnews.com or at (586)218-5004.