Reimagining 41st Street: Designing for People First

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Reimagining 41st Street: Designing for People First:

Master planning process kicked off

We got our first look at the direction the Mayor’s 41st Street Master Plan Committee is heading: Putting people first. To kick off the process, Miami Beach Economic Development Manager Michelle Huttenhoff said the goal is to create a more livable community by balancing the transportation needs of the City on one of its gateways with the needs of the families that live there.
“Right now, it’s just a vehicle corridor,” she said. “Not many people have a reason to stop and stay. All you see are cars going back and forth.”
Mayor Dan Gelber told the group of residents and business owners in the room, “I know the difference in cities is the connections people make in outdoor places. I’m hoping we can make a special place here.” When he announced the panel, he said he wanted a plan that would make the street “more usable to our residents, enhance its aesthetics, and transform it into a true town center for Mid-Beach.”
At the kick-off meeting, Gelber said he believes town centers are “the key to solving congestion challenges” because they get people out of their cars as well as provide “places for making connections.”
Gehl, one of the partners in the planning process (along with Alta Planning), focuses on creating “mutually beneficial relationships between people’s quality of life and their built environment" according to the company's website. Matthew Lister, principal and head of the New York office for Gehl, acknowledged 41st Street’s role as a gateway to the City. In this process, the firm will work with the City and other stakeholders to figure out “how to move the maximum number of people but also focus on meeting your larger quality of life goals for the community.”
He emphasized cities that support public life: improve the health and safety of their communities because people walk and bike; they create vibrant spaces that attract talent to work; are more socially resilient; and are more equitable because public spaces are for everyone. 
When you have those things, he said, “The big things start to take care of themselves.”
“Communities with strong social networks fare much better in disaster and resiliency,” he added.
Gehl is headquartered in Copenhagen which Lister said “made a concentrated effort to put people first.” The city used to be dominated by cars and, while they didn’t give up automobility, they shifted their priorities, placing an emphasis on bikes and gathering spaces.
“Cities have to intentionally put people first,” he said. Urban planners, however, need to take into account how people actually behave rather than how we assume they behave, he said.
The most important characteristics of successful public spaces, Lister said, are protection, comfort, and enjoyment.
Protection: “If it’s not safe, people won’t go.”
Comfort: “If it’s not comfortable, they won’t stay.”
Enjoyment: “Make it wonderful.”
“When we push back against human nature, it just doesn’t happen,” Lister said.
The ideal is to create spaces where people can “walk freely and comfortably” with adequate space. Provide crosswalks and areas that are free of obstacles, comfortable places for waiting, places to sit and relax. “We want to see and be around people,” he said. That’s human nature.
“In the US, streets are conveyances to move traffic but streets are our primary public space,” Lister told the group. One of the projects Gehl worked on was creating public spaces on New York City streets starting with Broadway between Times Square and Herald Square. That started as an experiment, an idea Lister said allowed the process to evolve into the success it is today. 
“Cities are held to impossible standards,” he said. “[A project] has to be perfect and permanent right out of the gate.” But, he said, “Cities are really complex and they’re changing all the time.” He urges city leaders to take time to get feedback before making initiatives permanent. In the Times Square example, he said the thought of closing Times Square was “an apocalyptical idea.” But they moved slowly to gauge reaction. First, he said, they “bought the cheapest chairs money could buy… New Yorkers flooded into the space and immediately complained about the quality of the chairs.” Next, they painted the street. Eventually, they got better furniture.
“It was a big idea, really, and they tested it,” he said. “Now it’s permanent.” Had they started with a permanent plan, it wouldn’t have happened, he said. By testing and taking an incremental approach, it is an idea that has taken off. According to the Gehl website, “So far 400,000 square meters of space in the heart of Manhattan have been reclaimed from traffic for people.”
While Lister said 41st Street will remain an important transportation corridor, the goal is to find ways of making it more multi-modal with a greater emphasis on people. 
Huttenhoff added, “It’s a really important commercial corridor but very dense with families,” including two schools. This master planning process will be different from others, she said, in that it’s about finding ways to make the area a place for connecting people.
She acknowledged the balance of moving traffic with neighborhood priorities. Another challenge, 41st Street is a State road.
This planning process covers 41st Street from Collins to the Julia Tuttle though there are “six blocks where the main commercial district is,” she said.
When one resident asked how to make the area become more of a community gathering spot when the businesses along the street are concentrated in the service industry such as real estate, lawyers, and doctor offices, Huttenhoff said research shows “businesses are moving to neighborhoods that exhibit these characteristics. If you invest in them, they will attract businesses. If you look at Wynwood, there are unique characteristics that allow for people to congregate.”
Gehl fits the profile of what the City is trying to do. “We chose Gehl because they have a unique perspective and approach to urban design,” Huttenhoff told RE:MiamiBeach. “Given the rich history of 41st Street and the highly dense population of families in the area, we wanted a firm that understood human behavior and designing for the human experience. They have been successful working in culturally diverse environments from around the world.”
Huttenhoff said the 41st Street planning process is being “fast tracked to help inform the GO Bond process." She noted a $10m placeholder in the proposed General Obligation Bond offering for the area. This “mini planning process” will “help better determine what those specific projects will look like” in the GO Bond.
After the kick-off, the team held several “pop-up” events to talk with members of the community about what they’d like to see for the area. They also observed how people use the street at different points during the day.
The City will receive a preliminary report by June 19 and a final report by end of June. 
Photo: City of Miami Beach

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