Let’s chat about University and Main


If you follow my Twitter feed at all, you may have noticed some discussion about the University and Main intersection. If you’re not in Peoria, then this probably doesn’t matter to you that much. But if you’re here, you’ve probably seen something about the reaction to the reconstruction of this intersection. Since I have thoughts, I wanted to capture all of them here. My primary audience for this blog post are my fellow Peorians, but if you’re interested in design (especially urban design), you might want to read this anyway. I’ll try to avoid making assumptions and bring you up to speed, so that you can follow along.

Who I Am

I’m pretty ambitious and hope that this blog post carries beyond my normal audience, so I figure I might need to explain a little about who I am and what shapes my opinions about University and Main.

My name is Seth Ben-Ezra, and I am a designer. My primary interaction with the principles of design comes from designing games, but I’ve expanded into process analysis, system design, user experience design, and even party planning and DJing, which is just another form of design. If I had to lump these various disciplines under one heading, I might choose “experience designer.” Yes, I agree, it’s not the best title, but it’s what I have for now.

This means that I’ve spent a large chunk of my life studying the concepts and principles of design, especially how human psychology intersects with designed objects and spaces.

Additionally, I am a Peorian. I’ve lived in this city for twelve years and, more specifically, I’ve lived in the University East neighborhood for the last eight years, having moved into the area back in 2006. I deeply care about this neighborhood and the West Main business corridor. I do what I can do support the businesses in this area, like Blue, One World, Mr. G’s, Leaves ‘n’ Beans, and Broken Tree. I love the ongoing efforts of the Renaissance Park Community Association in their work around Sheridan and Main.

In particular, I want to call out Blue and One World as being two of my favorite places in the whole wide world, and they are within blocks of where I live.

In other words, this area is my home, and I’m deeply invested in the people, businesses, and spaces of my home.

And, quite possibly, the most important intersection in this area is the intersection of North University Street and West Main Street. Two neighborhoods, Bradley University, and the Campustown shopping center all touch here. The rich, the poor, and everyone in between pass through this intersection. This is where the anti-war protestors gather. This is where college students do their fundraising.

I know that I’m biased, but I honestly believe that University and Main represents the heart of Peoria.

So, what’s all the hullabaloo about?

Let’s have a look!

What Happened to University and Main

Through the magic of Google Maps, we can have a look at what University and Main looked like back in July 2011. Click here to check it out. The perspective is essentially from the southwest corner. You can see Avanti’s on the northwest corner and One World on the northeast corner. Nothing too dramatic, right? Four lanes of traffic intersecting with four lanes of traffic.

Here’s another image of the front door of One World. Note those sidewalks. We’ll come back to those in a little bit.

Back in September 2013, there was a water main break at University and Main. It was patched up, but it was a temporary fix. The intersection needed to be dug up to enable a full replacement of the water main. According to Chuck Grayeb, the 2nd District City Councilman, who represents this area, the city manager Patrick Urich suggested that this could be an opportunity to perform additional changes to the intersection.

For a while now, various groups have been pushing to make West Main more walkable. This isn’t just a hypothetical issue. There have been a couple of pedestrian deaths in recent memory at or near University and Main. And, if you’re already tearing up the intersection, why don’t kill two birds with one stone?

Several public meetings later, the designs were finalized, and work began. For most of the spring, the intersection was closed, both for the water main work and the reconstruction efforts. Finally, on May 12, the City held a ribbon-cutting ceremony to celebrate the opening of the new intersection.

Now, check out the pictures on this article. What a difference! The intersection is raised to slow traffic, and the traffic has been narrowed to two lanes. When pedestrians signal for crossing, there’s an included four-way stop to allow them to cross, including crossing diagonally from corner to corner. Also, the sidewalks have been widened and low walls have been added to increase safety for pedestrians. Now, instead of cars whizzing by just feet away, pedestrians can be at a safe separation from traffic.

For another view, here’s a map of the design for the intersection. They didn’t put the giant Bradley insignia in the middle of the intersection, but it’s close enough to get the idea.

And then, the complaining and arguing began. And I have things to say to both sides!

So, let’s get to it, shall we?

To Those Objecting

Hello, neighbors! (Why do I call you neighbors? Because we all live in the same city and share the same space. That makes us neighbors.)

After having read some of the arguments and complaints about this intersection, I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you. I hope that this will be helpful to you as we continue to work through this issue together.

I’d like to start by discussing a basic concept of design.

When something is designed–an object, computer software, or a place–the design empowers the users to engage in certain activities and constraints them from engaging in other activities. For a simple example, think of a window. On the one hand, a window enables you to see through it. It also stops you from moving through it, as those who have walked face-first into a sliding glass door can attest.

This means that no design is neutral. Whenever something is designed, it is attempting to accomplish certain goals. Always. The old design of University and Main was aimed at accomplishing certain goals. The new design of University and Main is aimed at accomplishing certain goals. That’s what it means to design something.

Over on Facebook, Erik Likerson wrote:

Great! Everyone loves it except the group it should have been designed for. That is called a failure. Spin it how you want.

That’s a premature conclusion. Before we start talking about whether or not the redesign of University and Main works, we need to first ask: what were the goals of the new design?

The answer is found in a philosophy of urban design known as Complete Streets. Wikipedia offers this definition:

Complete Streets is a transportation policy and design approach that requires streets to be planned, designed, operated, and maintained to enable safe, convenient and comfortable travel and access for users of all ages and abilities regardless of their mode of transportation.

In general, transportation and street design has been mostly focused on the automobile for a long time, making it the status quo. As a result, pursuing a Complete Streets design, of necessity, means that there will be takeaways from the automobile to support alternate forms of transportation. This is because the design features that support high-volume automobile traffic (e.g. wide, multi-lane streets) also threaten pedestrian and bike traffic.

So, Mr. Likerson is incorrect. Or, at least, he is in conflict with the Complete Streets approach that the City has adopted. Who should the streets be designed for? Everyone, not just automobiles.

Honestly, this means that the frustration that many of you are feeling isn’t a sign of failure. It’s actually a sign of success. The design is producing the desired outcome: making it harder to use the intersection as a major thoroughfare.

The design of University and Main is working. It is accomplishing its stated goals.

But are those the right goals?

I’ll admit that’s a larger question. However, I will note that I have yet to speak to any of my neighbors who are opposed to a more walkable neighborhood. In fact, the only neighbor who I can recall has expressed concern has done so because she is concerned that the current design will not produce walkability in the area. Whereas, as I’ve spoken to members of the local business community or the neighborhood association, there is unanimous delight.

The City didn’t foist this idea on us. We wanted it.

And, at the risk of being a bit pointed, we are the ones who live and work here. Please give us the space to shape our home, just as we ought to give you the space to shape yours.

To Those Approving

Hello, neighbors! (Why do I call you neighbors? Because we all live in the same city and share the same space. That makes us neighbors.)

After having read some of the arguments and complaints about this intersection, I have some thoughts I’d like to share with you. I hope that this will be helpful to you as we continue to work through this issue together.

Something I’ve learned in design testing is that a user’s perception of his emotions is always true. His understanding of why he feels a certain way may be suspect, and his insight into how to make changes to the design may be limited, but his reporting of his emotion is always true.

So, when these drivers say they feel frustrated, let’s give them a little space. They really are frustrated, and, honestly, that’s a reasonable response.

After all, their world just got changed.

In their book, Made to Stick, the Heath brothers introduce the concept of the “curse of knowledge”. This is what happens when someone is so close to a topic or body of knowledge and has internalized so many assumptions that they forget what it’s like to be a beginner. This is why many knowledgeable people can be terrible at teaching. They have forgotten about the curse of knowledge.

Let’s be honest. Most of us who are excited about this new development are neighborhood activists, New Urbanists, or simply design nerds. We eat this stuff up wherever we can get it. We understand the goals of walkability. We know the difference between use-based zoning and form-based zoning. We know the advantages of mixed-use spaces, and we hope to encourage more eyes on the street to reduce crime. Some of you may even have learned rebuttals to the concepts that I just outlined.

In other words, we are experts in this area. Some of us have been pushing for these changes for literally years, and this intersection and the surrounding work is validation of a decade spent in the wilderness. (Anyone reading this remember the Heart of Peoria Commission?)

But, most of our neighbors who oppose this development aren’t aware of these larger conversations. And really, do they need to be? I am confident that there are rising schools of thought in engineering that deeply impact work that is happening right now at Caterpillar, and I have no idea what they are and why they matter.

In the same way, our neighbors don’t understand the philosophy and nuance that lies behind the new intersection. All they know is that their world suddenly changed, and it got harder.

So, now, it is incumbent on us to try to be persuasive. In particular, I’ve appreciated the work that Nick Viera has done to inject some actual data into the discussion. Perception can be a weird thing, and sometimes objective data can be just the thing to help someone see the truth.

Also, not to put too fine a point on it, the new design has actually been implemented, for better or worse. No one is going to tear it out and return it to its previous state, at least not in the foreseeable future. Now, we all have to live with it.

So, let’s live with it. Let’s get out into our neighborhood. Let’s walk our streets and enjoy the increased safety that we can now experience. If you bike, get out there! If not, maybe this is a chance to pick it up. (I’m thinking about it myself.) Patronize local businesses by walking or biking to them. Get out to the First Friday events near Main and Sheridan. Let’s live the life that we’ve wanted to live for so long. And maybe, our enjoyment and the giant smiles on our faces will offer more persuasion than any words can provide.

Personally, I am ecstatic about the ongoing changes in my neighborhood, and I am eagerly awaiting the bright future that seems to be heading our way. But, more than this, I want to be able to live at peace with my neighbors–all of them. So, above all, let us be at peace with each other as we continue to live together and share the city that we call Peoria.


One response to “Let’s chat about University and Main

  • Sandy Sanders

    Thank You Seth for the discussion. I am a ecstatic to see some progress in new urbanism in Peoria. Many college towns have walkable areas and unique spaces…we should too.
    For the people that just don’t get it… THEY are not engaged in planning and thinking about our future, it’s hard to blame them for just thinking about their everyday commute.
    I’m just happy the city is starting to realize it and working with others to make it happen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s