My favorite part of the annual Howell Melon Festival isn’t so much all the fun stuff there is to do. My favorite part is how different the Main Four intersection looks with Grand River Avenue closed for traffic to accommodate umbrella-ed tables with people around them enjoying food and drink and camaraderie.
It’s a lovely scene, reminiscent of European towns, or a slower, more friendly and relaxed way of life.
Why can’t it be like this every day, I think each year. Why can’t Howell get control of Grand River Avenue from the Michigan Department of Transportation and slow down the traffic, maybe even close a part of it — just a block or so — to create a pedestrian mall, a place for humans to relax and enjoy themselves and what downtown merchants have to offer?
For years, Howell has struggled with Grand River Avenue. Compare the ambience of Grand River Avenue through Howell’s downtown with that of Main Street in Brighton. While Howell is blessed with amazing historical architecture — its downtown is one of just a handful on the National Register of Historic Places — the truck traffic, the cars, the noise and speed distract mightily from its beauty and charm; the ambience all of it creates for pedestrians and outdoor diners is less than relaxing. On top of all that, Grand River Avenue is a challenge to cross, especially if one has mobility issues or is pushing a stroller.
Ideas for taming Grand River Avenue have floated about through the years. One lovely dream of a couple decades ago transformed Clinton and Sibley streets into one ways for a couple blocks to reroute through traffic, with just one lane in either direction on Grand River Avenue with a landscaped boulevard down the middle. This plan created expanded sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians, tables and chairs and benches, and used the boulevard as a stopping/resting space for people crossing the street.
In short, the dream was to make Grand River Avenue a lively civic space that would serve pedestrians instead of traffic.
There was also an idea that suggested reducing the lanes of traffic from five to three, with angled parking replacing two of the lanes and the current parallel parking spots to accommodate more cars and create a slower traffic pattern.
Those dreams never got traction.
But they might today.
MDOT conducted a public hearing last week in Farmington on its proposal to reduce Grand River Avenue from four lanes — two in each direction — from Shiawassee Street to Farmington Road to accommodate an on-street bike lane. MDOT is also proposing to reduce two eastbound through lanes of Grand River Avenue east of Farmington Road to one to accommodate additional on-street parking.
Sounds like a plan Howell could get behind, don’t you think?
And if that is music to your ears, think of how much better it might be to transform a section of Grand River Avenue into a pedestrian mall, banishing traffic — just like we do with Grand River Avenue during the Melon Festival and Legend of Sleepy Howell.
There have been mixed results with pedestrian malls across the U.S., but the one in Charlottesville, Va., is experiencing great success. Built in 1976, the Charlottesville pedestrian mall wasn’t an instant hit; however, design changes made in the 1990s made it into “one of America’s premier civic spaces, lined with trendy restaurants and boutiques.” You can read more about it here.
Maybe a less-permanent solution could help satisfy my want for a pedestrian paradise. Perhaps Howell could take on an Open Streets Project, which closes streets to traffic on a regular basis so people can get together and do fun stuff, like bicycling and dancing.
It’s a cool concept.
What do you think? Could Grand River Avenue become a successful pedestrian mall? Could it benefit from lane-trimming and traffic calming to provide a welcoming space for pedestrians and bicyclers? Should we close it on a regular basis, like on weekends, or a couple times a month? Or is Grand River Avenue turning into a pedestrian paradise just two or three times a year for festivals enough?
That MDOT is proposing some changes to Grand River Avenue in Farmington to better serve bicyclists and pedestrians gives me hope that something can be done in Howell.
PHOTO: Grand River Avenue during 2015’s Howell Melon Festival.