Thursday, July 31, 2014

900 Columbia Street: not necessarily a loss

 The worst intersection in Hudson is at the meeting of Columbia Street, Columbia Turnpike, and Prospect Street at the eastern end of the city, between Columbia Memorial Hospital and the cemetery. An agglomeration of acute and obtuse angles, grade changes, curves, and not-fully-expected stop signs contribute to a situation that one cannot negotiate logically or intuitively. I typically traverse the intersection in mild terror and complete it in amazement of not needing to detour into the hospital.
The intersection as it exists is shown below. I fudged the building at 900 Columbia Street, which used to abut the sidewalk but was torn down last year. I've simply slid it back on the site to approximate the new building that now sits there.

Existing intersection
While many were lamenting the demolition of 900 Columbia Street last year, I wondered if it presented an opportunity to more favorably configure the intersection. While the basic street geometries can't be changed, perhaps, I thought, the removal of 900 Columbia would allow a traffic circle to organize the mess. I'm not generally a fan of traffic circles, but they are effective at taming complicated street geometries. And statistically they are the safest type of intersection by a wide margin: accidents are almost never bad, because everyone is moving in the same direction and contact tends to be low-speed and glancing. Compare that to the current intersection, where an easily missed stop sign can result in a driver getting T-boned by a car traveling at full speed.
Another problem is that the intersection makes for a terrible entry into the city when approaching from the east. The hilly topography combines with the weird street angles to give one a sense of sliding away or being deflected from his desired path. And the hospital, a very large building compared to those that precede it, lacks a dignified presence. (The hospital does not have a proper presence on any of the streets on which it fronts, a topic for another time.)
Below is the intersection with a traffic circle overlaid. My dimensions are crude, but it turns out that I didn't need to use the front yard of 900 Columbia. In fact, I kept the whole northern edge of Columbia Street intact. If a larger circle (ellipse?) is needed, space perhaps can be taken to the east, where the existing house has gained a much larger front yard, and to the southwest, where the existing hospital parking lot is inefficiently configured.
Intersection with suggested traffic circle

The hilly topography is a concern, as a traffic circle needs to be level. Some significant regrading would be required, particularly at the south and east, where Prospect Avenue and Columbia Turnpike terminate. These roadways would have to be lowered, which would result in a steeper hillside at the edge of the cemetery.

Another concern is that traffic circles often are ugly. But when thoughtfully landscaped, they can be a community amenity that imparts not only safety, but a pleasing welcome for drivers and pedestrians. The one shown here isn't the most stunning example, but you get the idea.
Planting by Shippan Point Garden Club, Stamford CT
If I were to sermonize briefly here, I would question the zero-sum view that historic preservationists too often take toward buildings and cities. In fighting the loss of old buildings, they often fail to engage the city as the creative enterprise it actually is. Their focus is on what might be lost, not on what might be gained. Of course, we didn't need to tear down the old building at 900 Columbia Street to consider improving the intersection on which it fronts. But the possibility (and ultimately the reality) of its loss is in fact what sparked the "what if...?" exploration here. To the rearward-facing historic preservationist, such exploration is not undertaken because a loss is unavoidably a loss. But to the creative person, losses are opportunities. 

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