Longtime readers of my personal blog know that MacArthur Road in Whitehall, PA has long been my favorite whipping boy. This road is ugly, and it serves as the perfect bogeyman whenever new sprawl development is proposed. Even people who are not opposed to suburban land uses can usually agree that they do not want anything like this monster in their communities. It’s the best example I’ve ever seen of sprawl that just wants nothing to do with aesthetic appeal. The way they developed this road is like the architectural equivalent of bandit signs. Metal and billboards and directional signs everywhere bamboozle you. It looks horrible, and despite being just two or three lanes in most places, it is completely terrifying to drive on in a way that is difficult to describe.
This is mostly Whitehall’s fault because of how they zoned the areas to either side of the road to allow bonkers configurations of strip malls and surface parking. But the unmatched ugliness of the road itself is the state’s fault, because it is a state road – Route 145. To shorten the lead-in to the real story I’m not going to get into everything I hate about this road, but here’s the important part of the description. You’ve got the big chunky concrete median down most of the thing, forcing you to drive for like a mile if you miss your exit because you can’t turn left. And near the southern end of the Whitehall border before it turns into 7th Street in Allentown, you have the flat wide medians that take up a bunch of road space in the middle between the opposing traffic lanes so that cars can keep traveling at highway speeds going into a less insanely-developed area.
Recently Whitehall’s local politicians have been looking to take up the Herculean, maybe impossible task of revitalizing this area at the southern end of MacArthur Road, which still has a bit of a post-warzone vibe, but seems at least relatively salvageable compared to the northern end past the Lehigh Valley Mall. Nobody’s proposed anything especially radical, and it’s going to take a long time politically before the real fix can even be talked about – giving 145 a road diet, pulling out the medians, restoring curb parking, and gradually infilling the vast seas of street-facing surface parking lots with sidewalk-fronting buildings.
So far nobody is rethinking the whole road but they’re open to some little changes, and in that spirit, Whitehall Mayor Ed Hozza recently used some of his own personal money to buy some flower boxes to decorate the fat center medians.
All Whitehall Township Mayor Ed Hozza wanted to do was add a splash of color to his township’s main retail corridor when he personally placed 12 flower planters in the median strip.
But the price of beautifying MacArthur Road, a strip of local highway that’s come to be synonymous with road construction and traffic jams, was the public’s safety, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
The boxes of cannas, roses, yellow day lilies and climbing vines planted in the southern portion of the strip created a potential traffic hazard, PennDOT spokesman Ron Young said.
The department told Hozza he had until Friday to move his garden.
What was the reason he had to take them out?
Young said the planters were blocking what’s supposed to be a “mountable curb.” Motorists should be able to drive up onto the curb if they have to in case of an emergency. Young said his office had received several complaints.
“We received compliments,” Hozza said in regard to the planters.
This is truly PennDOT at its worst. First, many years ago, they created an unsafe road with highway levels of service through Whitehall’s gateway from Allentown. This eventually cost Whitehall a functioning central business district, but that was ok for a while because new sprawl development continued to boom at the northern end of MacArthur Road. But now, nobody’s interested in continuing to build more Big Box shopping centers on the northern end, and the existing ones have lost their luster. And the southern end has turned into an ugly low-rent corridor with none of the charm that’s bringing small retailers and restaurants back to many of PA’s older downtown business districts.
Now that the community recognizes the error and wants to take steps to correct it, PennDOT is still going to force the same top-down sprawl vision on them even though it’s not working anymore. Even flower planters on the median – planters! – are too much of a threat to the level of service for motorists. Imagine what PennDOT will say once Whitehall starts pushing for street changes that will actually work to calm traffic.
Any successful effort to revitalize this portion of MacArthur Road is going to involve reducing levels of service for motorists, in order to make conditions less threatening to pedestrians and cyclists. But PennDOT is frequently hostile to locally proposed changes that reduce levels of service for cars, even in urban areas. This is a problem that communities all over the state have to deal with.
The next PennDOT head under our next Governor needs to take a more deferential posture toward local and regional planning goals, and show respect for local priorities. If the local communities want to calm traffic and increase mode share for pedestrians and bikes, PennDOT needs to be a partner in that, not an adversary.
(via Bill Landauer)