Help! Highway Commercial Design Guidelines

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    Tanya Olson

    I’m writing Design Guidelines for my town as part of an ongoing volunteer effort. For the downtown I’m using the National Main Street Program Design Guidelines which were in turn taken from the National Trust for Historic Preservation – generally speaking, guidelines for design of buildings and streetscape for a pedestrian-friendly and inviting downtown.

    Here’s the twist.

    This is a very small town with about 6 linear blocks that can be considered ‘Downtown’ and a mile on each side of that which is “Highway Commercial”. The extents of the highway commercial district is limited by a park on one side and a rock outcrop on the other – what I am saying is that its infill from here on out – self-limiting sprawl. 

    Unlike most small towns, our hwy. commercial is actually ON main street. (We don’t have freeway development sucking the life out of our downtown.) The highway commercial feeds the downtown and vice versa, but has the typical increase in hotels and gas stations (but no strip malls) with lots of parking lots adjacent to the 4-lane, 35 mph road and setback buildings.

    Where the downtown consists of brick buildings built between 1880 and 1940, the highway commercial tends toward ‘mountain’ style architecture – log and stone, some pretty cheesy, some pretty nice. And of course, some prefab metal buildings.

    This is a car-oriented environment. (The volunteer committee is working on trail / better sidewalk connections).

    My question is – Are there any decent precidents for highway commercial devlopment?

    This is a district distinct from downtown and I don’t think we want to replicate downtown here. We want to find the best design guidelines for the existing form. I’m thinking of leading with landscape in contrast to the downtown where the architecture is the primary focus as the main difference in the hwy commercial district is availability of space…

    Any ideas?

    Tanya Olson
    Scroll down to the video – it shows pretty much the entire main street. The video starts out on the edge of the central business district, then about a block after the Dairy Queen (quite prominent in the video) it turns into highway commercial. Ideas, precedents, publications are all welcome.

    Mike Tupa

    Tanya, We work on rural downtowns in Colorado and I’d be happy to help you as much as I can.

    What you have is a downtown with a 5 lane highway (4 travel lanes and turn lane) and diagonal parking on each side. That’s probably 100′ of asphalt for the pedestrians to cross in the “downtown proper” and frankly that “downtown” is not a pedestrian friendly environment. When pedestrians are not happy they don’t shop, they drive to Wallmart or farther down the highway.

    Think of the town as if it were a suburban community where development is well away from the roadway, pedestrians are only welcome between their car in the lot and the front door. And they drive to the next store for that next purchase.
    Unless you can drop it down to two travel lanes (and you probably can’t) that downtown is screwed.

    I’d look at side blocks, back alleys and other off-the-road potential redevelopment for future retail development. Think of it as if you were developing a new shopping center with limited access and a 4 lane highway by the entry. Use the existing historic buildings, just change the entry point and create pedestrian areas-plaza’s-parks, etc. in those locations.

    Landscaping will improve some of that drive outside of downtown where your narrative started. Street trees, parking lot screening, etc. helps (again suburban solutions) but you probably won’t get much going without irrigation in Custer and I’ll bet they are not interested in trees that would “screen” retail signage.

    Keep me posted. Drop me an email and I’d be happy to lend some of the Colorado Main Street solutions to your effort. I thought that South Dakota had a Main Street program. If it does tap into that as quickly as you can. The 4 point program that the Main Street Program uses is a solid place to start. Design solutions are not successful without adequate promotion, economic restructuring, and an organization that represents the downtown merchants. Deadwood did some great things I think. Is there anything there that you could copy? ..

    Good Luck!. Let us know about your approach.

    Tanya Olson

    Thanks so much Mike. Your response is very helpful.

    The design guidelines I’m working on are part of a 6-year effort by an ad-hoc committee formed at the request of the mayor which has resulted in the renovation of our ‘town square’ park, and a giant TIF project described below. The committee was formed to respond to requests by the community for action on points identified in a community assessment done by SD Rural Development, so we had marching orders from the horse’s mouth so to speak – which REALLY has helped as we move through this process. (gives the process some teeth!) I’ve been on the committee since the beginning.

    We actually have 120′ from building face to building face in the downtown! The myth is that Custer was built to accomodate ox-trains, so we have a fairly vocal contingent that insist this feature is a tourist attraction. I won’t go into the YEARS we’ve discussed (argued about) going down to 3 lanes plus parking to widen the sidewalk, safety, etc etc with the city council, planning commission and community….

    SO…. as part of a current TIF project we are adding pedestian nodes to frame the downtown and replacing our lovely pressure treated telephone-pole street lighting with ‘historic’ lighting. Having walked in the downtown nearly daily in all seasons, I think the nodes will be really effective at slowing traffic down enough to make the crosswalks effective and much safer. The lighting will unify each district and bury the utilities which will clean up downtown considerably. Additionally, the downtown ‘town square’ park has been renovated with street trees added and the highway coming into town reduced from 5 lanes to 4, slowing down highway truck traffic as it descends the long hill into the main intersection downtown (2 uphill, 1 downhill and a turn lane). This strategy has worked to calm traffic.
    Our main street and the cross street I just described are also a state highways, so we have the DOT to contend with on this as well – in both the street width issue and the lumens necessary on the roadway. The heart of main street is also a state highway intersection!

    When I look at the National Main Street Program we have most of the points covered – very active merchant association separate from the chamber of commerce (which appeals to our wild west sensibilities!) active chamber of commerce, state advertising focusing heavily on the Black Hills, etc.

    Our committee looked at a number of CO towns as well as Deadwood, Brookings and some in IA as precedents. Deadwood kind of got tossed out because it isn’t on a state highway, so the downtown can have brick paved streets and streets can be blocked off for various festivities.
    It seems like CO towns are most similar to Custer because of the highway running through the center of the town.

    I like your idea of encouraging parking away from the street so pedestrians aren’t trapped in a moving sea of cars.
    We (the community) have ongoing discussions about a bypass (to get the DOT out of the downtown and be able to reduce lanes), but I actually think the shared main street is an interesting design problem and could have really effective solutions if we can figure out what they would be!
    It sounds like there really are no precedents for purposely sharing main street between two very different disctricts and intentional development of highway commercial to meet design guidelines that are on a continuum with the commercial core of the town. (?) It seems like most towns are trying to either fight this kind of development or make it something that it can never be.

    Maybe I should start with an opportunities / constraints list and see what emerges? Certainly its a difficult pedestrian environment, but offers ample parking for cars, truck-trailers, RVs.

    Trace One

    The Highway Commercial in the Hamptons had a successful development with, like you say, a huge buffer setback from the road that was all really attractive landscape. The businesses should not be visible from the street, but give them one nice sign, also attractively landscaped, and as previous poster said, limit points of entry to the site…The buffer setback was 100 feet wide of landscape in Bridgehampton – the stores were huge, so the setback was huge..Then treat the interior like the little outdoor shopping mall it would become, trying to promote pedestrian environment, multi-use design for parkings so it doesn’t scream PARKING at you..
    I didn’t look at the video, but that is my first impression..The Town of Southampton’s (new york) zoning ordinance is entirely on-line, if you go to the towns web site you can look up the zoning requirements for Highway Business. But in working on Zoning Ordinances, I found that the City of Vancouver was a real gold standard, for me – easy to read, very sensible, nice little graphics – I think graphics belong in ordinances! Good Luck! If I have any other opinions after viewing your video, I will be sure to spout them!

    One benefit of this is reducing parking requirements with shared use. But don’t forget to put a sidewalk on the Highway, in the buffer..(in my humble..)

    Trace One

    Does that sign realy say Population 1,860?? Are you really a member of the tourist board, trying to show how gorgeous SD is? It really looks NICE!! But I am wondering if you had the design consideration we had to deal with in the Hamptons – for each site, “where do you pile the snow in the winter?”

    hee hee..

    Mike Tupa

    Look for ways to safely bring peds through the traffic. Medians to slow the traffic, Mid block crossings, extra pedestrian cross lights, wider sidewalks, bump-outs at the intersections (narrowing the travel lanes to minimum width), etc. You are asking to solve a problem that you may not be able to solve. The highway moves traffic most efficiently and that is not compatable with pedestrian use. And the highway department is not going to be sympathetic to your pedestrian concerns… or atleast that’s the case here in CO. I’ll email you privately.

    Trace One

    Plenty of precedent, Tanya..Plenty of precedent..I would say this problem has occurred in most hamptons towns..

    Tanya Olson

    Yes. Really pop 1,860! Everyone thinks SD is the great plains, but we have this amazing little mountina town. Here’s the problem – and you and I have discussed this thoroughly – its not exactly crawling with jobs!
    Nonetheless, I do absolutely love it here and I’ve lived in some pretty righteous places, which is why I am volunteering to write the design guidelines. Am I CRAZY???
    When we started out that was a big problem until we said – ‘we already pile the snow in the middle of the street. Why don’t we put in planted medians and you can pile the snow there?’ Hmmm. We never heard much about the snow again…

    Tanya Olson

    Thanks for the reference to the Hamptons! I’ll check it out. It kind of sounds like they did what Palm Springs / Indian Wells / Palm Desert did.
    This won’t be the ordinance and it will be ‘suggestions’ rather than law, but it will have tons of graphics, historic photos, etc. At least thats the plan.

    Tanya Olson

    Thanks Mike. Hey – aren’t we LAs put on this earth to solve unsolveable problems? ha! Seriously – I was walking on the sidewalk next to the highway (35 mph, downtown 25 mph) and a semi with a pup flew past. I thought ‘if he looses a tire, I will be toast!’
    The DOT here is trying, but they put marked (striped) UNCONTROLLED pedestrian crossings in the 35 mph, 4-lane zone! I’m not sure they get the point….

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