Medians Are Not The Enemy of Small Business

Much ado has been made of the humble road median in this year’s campaign for Clemmons’ Village Council. On one hand, we have incumbents Mary Cameron, Lanny Farmer, and Mike Rogers, who have at least offered conditional support to these routine traffic calming measures, pending a review of designs. On the other, we have challengers Michelle Barson, Scott Binkley, and Pam Lofland, who have raised up road medians as a threat to civilization akin to Attila the Hun. The resulting political discourse has been disappointing, to put it mildly.

All of this rancor results from the contention that road medians are somehow anti-business and that medians on Lewisville-Clemmons south of I-40 will wipe out our business district. This is straight-up Luddite nonsense that, as best I can tell, is unsupported by either urban planning theory or hard engineering studies and is easily refuted by using one’s powers of observation and common sense.

Charlotte

The latter is where this blog post comes in. I decided to go on an urban safari to seek out these cagey road medians and study them in their natural habitat… the City of Charlotte. Having lived in an area of Charlotte for ten years that had issues similar to Clemmons’ business district – chaotic traffic, functionally obsolete infrastructure, aging commercial real estate – I wanted to see how road medians had impacted my old stomping grounds.

Sedgefield

My first stop was South Boulevard between Ideal Way and Marsh Road, adjacent to Sedgefield, a neighborhood of 1950s bungalows. In 2007, this part of South Boulevard was a crumbling artery abutted on both sides by aging retail and commercial buildings dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. It was so unsightly that the then sitting mayor, Pat McCrory, famously dubbed it “Trash Boulevard.” His statement was taken as truism and he faced no political backlash whatsoever.

The old businesses have been joined by new and exciting businesses, which allowed this once tired area to attract young professionals and families.

As part of the revitalization that occurred with the build out of the light rail line in the mid 2000s, the city installed medians to calm the expected increase in traffic volume (images below).

 

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What was the effect on businesses in this area? Many of the small businesses I recall with fondness – Zach’s burger stand, Long Animal Hospital, Monsoon Asian Restaurant, the Auto Bell, Broadway Shoes –  are still there and raking in the cash resulting from the revitalization. Long Animal Hospital expanded from a shabby 1950s era building into a new modern facility. Even tiny Tower Place Jewelers is still there.

 

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The old businesses have been joined by new and exciting businesses, which allowed this once tired area to attract young professionals and families. Check out that swanky Harris Teeter concept market! Pretty nice.

 

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It is not my contention that road medians are solely responsible for the revitalization of the Sedgefield business district, but it is clear from this brief tour that they had no negative effect on business and in fact contributed to a sense of order that attracted new businesses and residential development here.

Need more convincing? Take a google maps tour down this section of South Boulevard starting at 2215 South Blvd. just north of Iverson Way and click your way south until you get to Marsh Road. During my visit, most of the construction shown had been completed.

Woodlawn to Tyvola Road

Further down South Boulevard is the unnamed retail district between Woodlawn and Tyvola Rd. When George Shinn’s Charlotte Hornets departed for New Orleans in 2002, this part of Charlotte was all but given up for dead. It was home to big box stores like Circuit City and Media Play, both of which coincidentally went bankrupt at about the same time.

I gather that some people are freaked out by u-turns. Honestly, I just don’t get it. If u-turn safety is an issue, they can be protected by dedicated traffic lights.

Medians went in around the major intersections of these roads with South Boulevard sometime in the late 2000s. In spite of the medians restricting left turn traffic into the shopping centers, I did not note any vacancies and in fact there had been some new construction on the corners of the intersections.

 

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Further down South Boulevard are additional medians. Owing to it mainly being an immigrant neighborhood where people have less disposable income, there were a handful of vacancies here but overall the businesses appeared prosperous. In one image, you can see a u-turn lane and curb cut-out. I gather that some people are freaked out by u-turns. Honestly, I just don’t get it. If u-turn safety is an issue, they can be protected by dedicated traffic lights.

 

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Wilkinson Boulevard

My parents first home (circa 1970) was off Little Rock Road not far from Wilkinson Boulevard. At that time, Wilkinson Boulevard was a booming retail corridor; my mother used to take me shopping there. But as the airport expanded, middle class families departed for quieter environs, and the area slipped into decline. Today, it is one of Charlotte’s highest crime rate areas.

The point is, all of the places we just visited make extensive use of medians, and are vastly improved from what they were twenty years ago.

Around 2005 or so, Wal-Mart decided to build a super center on Wilkinson Boulevard. I’ve never seen another Wal-Mart quite like this one. A small shopping center, built out as part of the same development, obscures the front of Wal-Mart (which is situated perpendicular to Wilkinson Boulevard). As a result, you can’t really see the Wal-Mart store from the main road and the passing drivers get the impression of an urban village. Wal-mart augmented this effect by dressing up the front of their store to look like several stores. Meanwhile, the city installed medians to manage the traffic flow (shown below). These medians are actually quite attractive. The city planted something that looks like monkey grass and the leaves on the trees were a nice rust color. The median and the sidewalk area work together as a whole to create an inviting visual effect.

 

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My point here is not that Wal-Mart would be an appropriate member for our business district. Rather the medians, which are fairly extensive, did not deter Wal-Mart from building in this location. Whatever you may think of Wal-Mart, they know a thing or two about optimizing traffic patterns to advantage their stores, and they certainly have a better handle on it than Uncle Joe sippin’ coffee and spinnin’ yarns over at Clemmons Kitchen. We may frown on a Wal-Mart here, but residents of west Charlotte are quite glad to finally have a store like this. It’s a fine looking store inside and out – clean, modern, and stuffed to the gills with merchandise. Not at all like our K-Mart. As an added bonus, the locals also got a nice urgent care center in the bargain.

That concludes our trip down South Boulevard. You may not cotton to the types of development you see here, but that’s not the point. The point is, all the places we just visited make extensive use of medians, and are vastly improved from what they were twenty years ago. They look good and there is more business being done in each of these places than there was before.

Raleigh

As luck would have it, I had to make a trip to Raleigh today and caught some of those wily medians on camera! Here’s an example on Western Boulevard, which I think is an apt comparison to the Clemmons’ business district. This stretch of road has about a half mile of medians, occasionally broken by left hand turn / u-turn lanes. It is not walk-able from NC State’s campus or the surrounding neighborhoods, so it depends almost entirely on vehicular traffic. The road is wide, but I would guess it carries less traffic than Lewisville-Clemmons Rd.

According to the logic of Stop The Median, these stores should not exist. And yet, here they are, including a throw-back candy store tossed in for a little nostalgia.

On each side of the road are scores of small businesses, none in buildings much larger than 3,000 square feet. As best I could tell, there are no vacancies on this stretch of road. In my opinion, this median design is the worst case scenario for Clemmons – a one mile stretch of road broken by only two or three turn lanes. And yet, it is more visually appealing than the situation on Lewisville-Clemmons Rd, and the businesses there are prospering. Take the google tour starting at 3710 Western Blvd. and click west.

Western Blvd

On my way to Cary to visit Goodberry’s Frozen Custard stand (the best custard in The South!), I passed these shops. They are completely hidden from the main parking lot around the corner, have only one small turn out drive for access to the street fronting them, and are besieged by a dastardly median. According to the logic of Stop The Median, these stores should not exist. And yet, here they are, including a throw-back candy store tossed in for a little nostalgia.

 

Hawaiin

I took Highway 64 from Cary all the way back to Davidson County. You don’t realize how ubiquitous medians are until you pay attention to them on a drive like this. They dot this highway almost the entire 100 miles. At no point on this route is there any evidence that medians deter business development. To the contrary, it is quite clear that they follow growth and business development. I’d also add that in my travels between Clemmons, Charlotte, and Raleigh this week, I have yet to come across an unbroken urban median any longer than about 150 feet. The idea that the professional civil engineers at the NC DOT are going to recommend an unbroken median from I-40 to highway 158 is nonsense.

In Conclusion

Contrary to the caterwauling of Stop the Median, medians do not hinder business development or threaten small businesses. Nor do they directly spur development, they follow it. Aside from the safety enhancements they provide, they indirectly contribute to the sense of order that is the foundation for further business growth.

Only in Clemmons do people go bat-s*** crazy over a need so obvious and mundane. We might as well be arguing over the merits of indoor plumbing or electrifying Clemmons this issue is so basic.

As best I can tell, Stop the Median’s position has exactly zero basis in urban design theory or engineering studies, is unsupported by direct observation and common sense, and is completely reliant on one off anecdotes and screeching louder than their opposition. We’re talking about installing a few medians on Lewisville-Clemmons Rd, not turning it into a controlled access freeway.

If you think Charlotte, Raleigh, and Cary are somehow unique, you need only drive over to the intersection of Highway 158 and 801 in Advance to prove that they are not. This intersection is festooned with medians as is the road north of the Interstate, and yet, other than a Bank of America branch that never got any traction, the businesses in that area seem to be doing just fine.

Stop the Median and the candidates running under that banner are demagoguing an issue that has serious safety implications. All because a few business owners cannot acknowledge basic, observable facts and mistakenly believe that a median will adversely affect their profits. Oh, and to give themselves of momentary and fleeting political advantage. This is shameful.

Medians go in without controversy all over this state, because they are a basic engineering method to calm the flow of traffic in high traffic areas. Only in Clemmons do people go bat-s*** crazy over a need so obvious and mundane. We might as well be arguing over the merits of indoor plumbing or electrifying Clemmons this issue is so basic. I mean really, if this town can’t get on-board with a few medians, we might as well take the Hattie-Butner stage coach out of mothballs and call it mass transit.