As reported in a recent Omaha World-Herald article, a $1.3 million streetscape project will proceed this summer in Benson along Maple Street and Military Avenue. It is worth recounting what made this project happen and the lessons we can learn from it.
BID plays a key role – The Benson Business Improvement District was a key player in making this project happen. A BID is established by City Ordinance, funded by assessments on property owners within its boundaries, and is accountable to Omaha City rules. The Benson BID decided to focus on a streetscape project to support its burgeoning businesses and restaurants along Maple Street and Military Avenue. Specifically, the narrow, uneven, and obstacle strewn sidewalks do not permit the necessary pedestrian traffic to the businesses, and the high speed of automobiles on Maple Street is a threat to all other modes of transportation.
Valuable City Support – City Councilman Pete Festersen supported the Benson BID’s plans. Funding was planned for the construction (City of Omaha bonds, Kiewit Foundation, and a private donor) and for the maintenance (the Benson BID will pay for maintenance of streetscape elements such as benches, trees, etc). Public Works selected a consultant Engineer to design the new streetscape.
Jurisdiction and Design Standards are not clear – As the design progressed, the consultant Engineer met with the Benson stakeholders who welcomed many of the design elements, such as bumpouts at street crossings, benches, landscaping, and a gathering place at 61st Street. But a few issues remained:
- Maple Street is a state highway and under the jurisdiction of the Nebraska Department of Roads (NDOR) who has a say in any discussion of lane width or speed limit change. Early attempts to relocate the state highway to another street like Northwest Radial Highway were unfruitful.
- To widen the sidewalks, street lanes must be narrowed, which leads to many questions: Is the turning lane needed? If so, what is the appropriate width? And what is the appropriate width for the traffic and parking lanes? The City Engineer, Public Works and NDOR provided sporadic, changing answers. The proposed lane widths were not backed up by any published standards and seemed arbitrary.
- Another project goal, reducing speeding along Maple Street, could be achieved with narrower lanes, but the lane widths remained the same. Once again, it was not clear why such a key safety matter was not addressed with a transparent and consistent application of engineering standards.
These issues surfaced at various times as the proposed sidewalk and parking lane widths changed first for the better (safer traffic, wider sidewalks) then for the worse: just before the January Urban Design Review Board, the proposed lane widths were such that only 9 inches would be added to the sidewalk, a meager gain for such an expensive project.
The importance of the UDRB – Days before the Urban Design Review Board met to discuss the project, Mode Shift Omaha submitted a letter to the UDRB, praising the positive aspects of the project, but urging the Board to consider better bike infrastructure, streetscape elements, and a lower speed limit, and most of all, to reconsider the lane widths, quoting from prominent sources supporting narrower lanes. The letter concluded that the Benson Streetscape project was good but not great and urged the Board to improve it.
On January 15, the UDRB approved plans that increased the planned sidewalk making it 18 inches wider than the existing sidewalk. So the UDRB review added 9 inches of sidewalk to the Benson community! We credit Councilman Festersen for pushing the parking lane issue and opening lines of communications between all the parties.
In retrospect, better communication between the various entities and the transparent application of engineering standards would have benefited and expedited the project.
What’s Next? – Benson residents and businesses will get a boost from the documented benefits of wider sidewalks and a more vibrant streetscape. Still to be decided is how many of the poles and sidewalk structures will be moved to adjust to the wider sidewalks. Other neighborhoods can learn from the sustained and mostly successful effort of the Benson BID.
We can all work for even more improvement in the future, while we enjoy a walk in the Benson area!