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Archive for Sunday, May 30, 1999

DEAD ENDS LOSING FAVOR

May 30, 1999

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Cul-de-sacs -- longtime staples of suburban residential subdivisions -- are facing new questions from planners and engineers worried about congestion, traffic speeds and pedestrian convenience.

New cul-de-sacs are facing an uphill battle at city hall.

The popular street design -- known for limiting noise, congestion and safety problems related to automobile traffic in residential areas -- is undergoing an overhaul as planners, traffic engineers and elected officials rethink how Lawrence's new and future neighborhoods should be laid out.

While living on a cul-de-sac may mean little or no traffic for one homeowner, they say, it can mean 10 times as much traffic for someone living on a road with cul-de-sacs sprouting from the neighborhood's collector street.

And that's not good for anyone, even the people living on a cul-de-sac, said David Woosley, the city's traffic engineer.

"It's not a question of fairness," he said. "Cul-de-sacs aren't pedestrian-friendly, they're not bicycle-friendly, and they don't distribute the automobile traffic evenly."

Officials are kicking around the idea of limiting the use of cul-de-sacs in plans for new subdivisions, a move that could change the face of a city that grows by more than 350 single-family homes, 750 overall housing units and 1,600 people a year.

After decades of getting green lights from city officials, developers of housing subdivisions are starting to face signals of caution from city hall.

"Cul-de-sacs are not the only way to design a neighborhood," said Linda Finger, the city's planning director, in critiquing a developer's plans during a meeting last month.

But make no mistake: People love their closed-end streets, where large lots, increased privacy and boosted property values are the norm.

Ron Durflinger, a local home builder and Lawrence-Douglas County planning commissioner, calls cul-de-sac lots "the American Dream." He and others remain skeptical about plucking vital threads out of the country's residential fabric.

"Everyone wants to live on a cul-de-sac," said Dennis Snodgrass, sales manager for Coldwell Banker McGrew Real Estate and a former planning commissioner.

"People want to get out of the way of speeding traffic, and a cul-de-sac is about the only way to do that. " To take this tool away from a developer, it just smacks in the face of common sense."

Changing directions

While the traditional hierarchy of streets in town has remained unchanged for decades -- local streets connect to busier collector streets, which hook up with arterial streets that eventually feed into highways -- the designs at the low-intensity end of the puzzle have become muddled.

Woosley, the traffic engineer, likes to compare Old West Lawrence and Alvamar, two neighborhoods that share the distinction of having beautiful homes despite operating under different traffic patterns.

Established more than a century ago west of downtown, Old West Lawrence has a grid of narrow streets that allows traffic to move from block to block without physical interference. Sidewalks on both sides of streets allow pedestrians to connect with their neighbors.

"You don't see as much traffic as you see in newer neighborhoods," Woosley said, because traffic is not funneled onto intentionally busy streets. "It's not only better for pedestrians and bicycles but for cars, too.

"If you can spread the traffic out and slow it down, it works for everybody."

Alvamar's development west of Kasold Drive, however, has a distinct suburban feel. Cul-de-sacs take root off winding roads designed to smoothly funnel traffic onto the city's busiest streets.

The maze also has a drawback: Lots physically separated by 200 feet could be a mile apart by foot, bicycle or car, as indicated by conceptual plans for a new development north of West 15th Street.

Neighbors by sight really aren't neighbors at all, unless they each have cars.

"We have designed our subdivisions so you have to use your automobile," Woosley said. "You don't have an alternative."

Breaking the pattern

For builders, however, cul-de-sacs often are the only option, said Price Banks, a private land-use attorney and former director of the Lawrence-Douglas County Planning Office.

The rolling hills and meandering drainageways in many developing residential areas provide natural barriers to construction of through streets, Banks said. Putting in cul-de-sacs allows developers to preserve natural drainage, create beautiful views and ensure safe lots while following natural contours of the land.

"It's the ideal residential development," Banks said. "Kids can play in the street."

David Dunfield, a Lawrence city commissioner and architect, has heard about several communities on the East and West coasts that already have decided to prohibit cul-de-sacs in new developments.

He knows Lawrence won't turn the corner right away, but with increasing concerns about traffic speeds, automobile congestion and pedestrian convenience, he knows some form of change is coming.

"It takes time," said Dunfield, a former chairman of the Lawrence Association of Neighborhoods. "We've spent 50 years in this country developing this pattern, " through zoning and the way we've subsidized the automobile. It's a gradual process of breaking that pattern down."

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is mfagan@ljworld.com.

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