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Looking at a ‘Better Block’
Part of E. 7th St. will be decked out for a weekend urban planning event
On Saturday, June 8, part of East Seventh Street is getting a makeover. Temporarily, at least.
Volunteers will use temporary materials to create bike lanes, widen the sidewalk, add crosswalks, throw up murals and sculptures, and erect businesses between Margaret and Arcade as a sort of street betterment workshop.
Among the pop-ups will be Sweet Science Ice Cream, a bike stand with training on how to fix flat tires, an aquaponic garden with live fish and vegetables in a temporary gazebo, and a pop-up house (yes, a house) put together by a real estate agent.
“It’s part art installation and part transportation model,” says Andrew Howard, co-owner of Team Better Block, a Texas-based nonprofit running the event. The company helps cities around the U.S. put on similar events.
Howard hopes the event will draw folks from throughout the Twin Cities and get them thinking about changing public infrastructure.
“The point is to do something interactive and get people thinking about streets,” says Anton Jerve, city planner for St. Paul. Jerve is the lead on the city’s Complete Streets project, a citywide look at ways to improve the infrastructure.
The interactive part is important, Howard says. “Instead of drawing a picture of the place and having a meeting, we do the Better Block.”
Howard has seen plenty of street planning meetings that have “kind of dissolved into worst-case scenarios.” Actually throwing in a temporary change let’s people see a changed street firsthand, he says, which helps things get done.
Using quick, temporary materials such as duct tape and tempura paint, volunteers will transform the layout of the area. A slice of busy East Seventh Street will go from two lanes in each direction to just two lanes total for the day.
In place of the car lanes on the north side of the street will be a two-way bike lane with a parking lane as a buffer between vehicle and bike traffic. On the south side of the street there will be a wide, expanded sidewalk allowing for a streetside cafe. In addition, Margaret Street between East Seventh and Arcade will be closed off and turned into a plaza complete with games and an open-air market.
Beyond changing traffic patterns, this type of change “can affect the feel” of the area, said Jerve. “Folks kind of take streets for granted, but the design of a street really makes a difference.”
The East Seventh experiment doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with a specific project for the Dayton’s Bluff area.
Rather, “it’s a demonstration of how you could potentially change a block, that could be replicated throughout the city,” says Sara Swenson, spokesperson for the city’s Planning and Economic Development department.
For this reason, the crew is expecting folks from throughout the city to check it out, since it relates to a larger picture of city development.
In fact, the Better Block experiment is designed to compliment a larger undertaking of the city’s - the Complete Street project. The city received federal funding for the Complete Street plan from the federal Department of Transportation. As part of the project, city planners are creating a street design manual “to illustrate street design best practices and to implement adopted complete streets policies,”
according to the project website. The manual is set to be completed in the fall. Data and feedback from Dayton’s Bluff street experiment will feed into the manual.
Volunteers recruited for the project will collect some data before and during the event. They’ll count the amount of foot, bicycle and auto traffic before and during to compare the figures.
Alongside the hard numbers, Jerve says they’ll be collecting “data that evaluates people’s comfort level.”
The manual will essentially assure that “all modes are considered when designing the street,” he says, as opposed to “being too heavy on one mode versus another.”
East Seventh for example, can feel a little unfriendly on a typical day if you’re not driving a car.
Jeff Zaayer, one of the lead volunteers on the Better Block Project, described it as an “intrusive roadway.”
“It’s a very wide, busy street that... segments one side of the street from the other,” he said.
Tabitha Benci DeRango from the Dayton’s Bluff Community Council seconded that. The council is located right where the Better Block Project will go. Crossing the street around there “can get very difficult,” she said, and “there aren’t a lot of marked crosswalks.”
Bringing the project to the area is “a great way to show people what could be,” she says.
But in many ways, the area’s already in transition, she says.
Howard says the positive change in the neighborhood was a big part of why the Dayton’s Bluff spot was chosen over several possibilities throughout the city.
DeRango totes a couple other initiatives as positive change for the business district. One thing she says helped boost business in the area was a business fair last August, when around 1,000 people turned up to check out local shops and hang out in the streets.
Since then, several area businesses have seen an uptick, she says.
And this year the neighborhood will have a new weekly market - Turning Margaret St. into a plaza is not just a one-off idea. The Dayton’s Bluff Community Council will be making a regular go of it every Thursday in the summer from June 13 to mid-August, with the exception of July 4.
“Eventually, we’d like to change it into a convertible street,” says Tabitha Benci DeRango, project coordinator for the council.
The weekly event will work like a mixed market with produce stalls as well as artisans serving up their wares. Alongside that will be information booths, a kids activity area, and live music.
“The community’s very excited about it,” DeRango says.
Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Better Block project is open to the public from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 8. It will be located on East 7th Street between Margaret and Arcade.
To volunteer, visit teambetterblock.com/saintpaul/volunteer-form/.
For more information, visit teambetterblock.com/saintpaul/.