After submitting plans to make Main Street a more walkable village core, it seems like the perfect time for Williamsville to sit back and hope for the best.
Not content with waiting for the state Department of Transportation to act, village officials and residents are taking matters into their own hands by painting crosswalks and making some of the hoped-for changes themselves.
The alterations are temporary – they will only last this week – but are part of a new effort to “take back Main Street” by getting pedestrians to feel safe and have fun on the traffic-clogged stretch.
“The whole purpose of it is to just make the village realize that even though this is a state road, this is our Main Street,” said Village Mayor Brian J. Kulpa. “It’s fleeting, it’s three hours, but for three hours just let people own the road, do what they want, make it up. It’s your road.”
For the first time in recent memory, Main Street will be completely closed to traffic next Saturday for a three-hour festival centered around music, food and spontaneous activities.
Kids are invited to bring buckets of chalk and mark up the road. Musicians will belt their tunes in the middle of Main. And a “biker bash” will be held outside a popular restaurant – but with bicycles, not motorcycles.
On Friday night, “pop-up shops” will line Spring Street for another party, this one to simulate the planned pedestrian-friendly redevelopment near the Williamsville Water Mill.
And to get people in the spirit of things, the village will hold its Monday board meeting outdoors – at the site of a pocket park planned next to Village Hall.
It’s part of a wider goal to prepare people for the physical changes the village is likely to see in the next few years – and to build momentum for a national conference on urban design and development coming to Buffalo next year.
“We’re trying to prepare people for changes but also for the mindset that just because we make these changes in the geometry of the road, it’s fleeting unless you feel you own the corridor,” Kulpa said. “If people don’t say, ‘Hey, I want to walk on Main because it’s a cool place to be,’ what’s the point of doing geometries?”
That’s music to the ears of William W. Tuyn, vice president and director of town planning for Greenman-Pedersen Inc., an engineering and construction services company and a former president of the Buffalo Niagara Builders Association.
Tuyn and others say the type of traffic-calming and pedestrian changes Williamsville is making – and similar efforts in cities and suburbs – are one reason he and others lobbied to get the national conference here next summer.
Playing off the strength of recent conferences held by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Society of Architectural Historians, the latest gathering – called the Congress for the New Urbanism – aims to highlight the region’s development successes while taking a stab at its most challenging problems.
Much of the attention will be focused on Buffalo, where the Green Code – a revamp of the city’s codes – and other efforts are being praised by developers, business owners and community leaders as important steps in spurring long-term growth.
But many of the attendees will also take a look at the suburbs – whether they can remain viable long-term, even as national development trends show a shift back to more urban areas with greater density.
“The biggest investments we’re seeing now is in the city and dense, urban areas like Williamsville,” said Charles D. Grieco, a Buffalo attorney who will help plan the conference.
“We’re not seeing a collapse of our suburbs but we’re seeing a declining growth.”
He adds that the key to making suburban areas more sustainable long-term is getting away from sprawling developments in many and returning to traditional neighborhood design.
Many communities around the country have opted for new “planned communities” that mix retail, residential and professional uses and focus on pedestrian infrastructure and connectivity between neighborhoods.
Here, the communities that have always embraced that model – Elmwood and Hertel avenues in the city and many of the villages in the Southtowns, for example – are where home values are rising most swiftly, he said.
Suburban developers, on the contrary, have been slow to accept what is termed “smart growth” as a regular way of building, although Tuyn said there has been some slow progress in recent years.
Grieco said the answer here isn’t to find a large swath of land a start a new community but to rebuild the ones we have – many of which continue to remain strong but need some minor changes.
“It’s just saying, look, we’ve got the guts of Elmwood, Hertel, Hamburg, East Aurora,” Grieco said. “Focus on those assets.”
People travel across the country and world to go to walkable settings like those throughout New England, or in different parts of the South, Tuyn said.
“They don’t go on vacation to visit Transit Road,” he said.
East Aurora is often mentioned as the picture-perfect example of how investing in a pedestrian culture can result in a thriving business district and a sense of place that attracts new residents.
But Williamsville also appears to be taking a page from Hamburg’s playbook. The Southtowns village a few years ago hired Dan Burden, the nation’s leading “walkability” expert, to help craft development plans for its village core.
Burden, who will likely speak at the weeklong conference, helped push the state Department of Transportation to revise its plans to include roundabouts, redesigned roads and easier pedestrian crossings.
Most notably, though, the process involved the type of public input and involvement DOT officials acknowledged that they never sought before.
The Williamsville plan was crafted in much the same manner, and officials are confident that because of that, the state is likely to approve all of the elements residents will get to try out this week.
“At some point, you have to just do something,” Kulpa said. “I had a couple tell me, they’re not leaving the village because the village is now cool. And that’s the best compliment.”