Special Report: Walkable Streets

No Excuse Not to Understand How Cities Work

The lower city and particularly the downtown core do belong to everyone, and that means everyone has a legitimate interest to ensure that it flourishes and thrives.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 02, 2013

Imagine a nightclub - let's call it The Hammer - that has a long-standing tradition of slapping patrons in the face. The club has been face-slapping for decades, and a small number of face-slappers have been able to make a decent living at it.

Very few people actually like getting their face slapped, and there are many other, non-face-slapping nightclubs people could choose instead. As a result, The Hammer has to practically give drinks away for free to get anyone at all to come, and indeed the place has been losing money for a long time.

Over the years, many people have called for face-slapping to come to an end, including a parade of consultants and experts called in to help the management figure out how to make The Hammer more successful.

Indeed, it's the one refrain they hear over and over from every expert they talk to: "For heaven's sake, stop slapping people! Your nightclub will never be a desirable place for lots of people to choose as long as you keep slapping them."

There are a few booths and nooks at the nightclub that are relatively protected from slapping, and they're the most popular, desirable corners of the club. People who do go to The Hammer tend to gravitate to those tables, and when they look around, they wonder why the rest of the club is left as a free rein for the face-slappers.

Hard to Give Up

But despite all this, it has been surprisingly difficult to put an end to the practice.

For one thing, the face-slappers cry bloody murder at the prospect of having to find something else to do for a living. They have a lot of pull with the management, who are afraid they won't be able to keep operating if the face-slappers leave.

For another, The Hammer has a certain reputation after all those decades of face-slapping, and the management worries that if they stop slapping faces, the small (and dwindling) number of people who don't mind having their faces slapped might stop coming and no one else will come in their place.

Sure, the experts and consultants keep telling them: If you stop slapping them, they will come. But in their risk-averse hearts they don't really believe it. That fear of change makes them conservative, even in the (many-times-slapped) face of overwhelming evidence that the policy of face-slapping is not working well for anyone.

There's a certain snobbery at work as well. People with the option to frequent more exclusive, non-face-slapping clubs worry that their exclusivity might be diluted if the people who have no choice but to drink at a reduced-price, face-slapping club start spreading out instead.

Finally, there's a kind of shaky philosophical underpinning to the whole face-slapping tradition, an ex post facto rationalization for keeping things the way they are. It takes the form of a loose coalition of face-slapping apologists who actually argue that face-slapping is a good thing that should be continued on the strength of its benefits.

"Face-slapping is The Hammer's competitive advantage," they say, from the comfort of their slap-free clubs and hotspots. "It's your value proposition. The Hammer has a strong market position in the face-slapping industry. After all, hardly any other clubs around here are still slapping faces!"


Tortuous Metaphor

In this tortuous (pun intended) metaphor, The Hammer is lower city Hamilton, and face-slapping is the network of community-destroying, multi-lane, one-way expressways that we continue, year after year, to maintain and defend against all evidence to the contrary.

Even now, there are still one-way expressway apologists around the council table, on the airwaves, in the newspaper bylines and letters to the editor and the comment boxes of local websites, still telling us with straight faces that Hamilton needs to keep stunting and deforming its urban neighbourhoods to accommodate a relentless demand for fast, dangerous automobile traffic that increasingly doesn't even exist outside the feverish imaginations of cut-through commuters who regard a 30-second delay at a red light as an intolerable intrusion on their convenience.

Overall traffic volumes on lower city arterials fell significantly between 2000 and 2010 - in some locations by as much as 38 percent - but our four- and five-lane one-way juggernauts continue to blast through vulnerable urban neighbourhoods long after the economic patterns that led to their creation in 1956 have dissolved.

Daily Traffic Volumes, 2000 and 2010
Location 2000 Volume 2010 Volume Change % Change
Cannon E of Sherman 16,000 10,800 -5,200 -32.50%
Cannon W of Sherman 11,000 9,100 -1,900 -17.27%
Cannon near James 18,000 16,700 -1,300 -7.22%
Bay N of Main 15,700 12,400 -3,300 -21.02%
James S of Herkimer 30,000 18,700 -11,300 -37.67%
Main at Dundurn 41,100 37,300 -3,800 -9.25%
Main E of Bay 31,000 28,400 -2,600 -8.39%
Main near Kenilworth 32,000 20,300 -11,700 -36.56%
Queen S of Charlton 13,000 12,200 -800 -6.15%
Hunter W of John 11,000 7,500 -3,500 -31.82%

Traffic volumes on lower city streets are low and falling, and all the lane capacity that is currently dedicated to automobile lanes could be much better used to build a continuous network of bike lanes and wider, safer, more comfortable sidewalks.

Support Against All Evidence

Councillor Lloyd Ferguson and Terry Whitehead continue to insist against common sense, logic and the overwhelming weight of evidence that maintaining these community-destroying expressways is somehow good for the city as a whole.

It is particularly disturbing to hear this insanity coming from Ferguson, who is widely expected to announce a mayoral run next year. Anyone who is serious about running to be the elected leader of the city should at a minimum understand that no city can be healthy and economically sustainable without a strong, healthy centre - and that no neighbourhood can thrive with fast, multi-lane expressways cutting through it.

Even if we set aside the sheer injustice of this willingness to trade a large "sacrifice zone" of urban neighbourhoods for a marginal increment of convenience, it is economically self-defeating for a city to give up on the essential urban economies of scale, agglomeration, density, association and extension that an intact, functional urban form make possible.

It is laughable to present oneself as a fiscally responsible choice and then promote an economic development model that has been proven to hollow out the city's economic development engine and saddle taxpayers with steadily increasing net lifecycle debt obligations.

The Hamilton Chamber of Commerce understands this: Chamber President Keanin Loomis argues eloquently that the lower-city expressways Ferguson and Whitehead love so much are "the biggest drag on our future success" and need to change quickly for the city's nascent renaissance to take root and deepen.

Our elected leaders no longer have an excuse not to understand how cities work. The lower city and particularly the downtown core do belong to everyone, and that means everyone has a legitimate interest to ensure that it flourishes and thrives.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By mikesmoniz (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 14:17:18

The only face slapping I hope to see(metaphoric of course) is Ferguson soundly defeated in mayoralty run

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 14:21:29

Well written and well argued. Nicely done (again), Ryan.

(Edit: ...and for the record, I'd still kinda be interested in heading into 'The Hammer', after a few pints, of course, just to see the place in action!)

Comment edited by slodrive on 2013-10-02 14:22:36

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 14:46:39

The most bizarre comment in this whole shocking saga is Ferguson's claim that wider sidewalks and cycle lanes (and the reduction in the number of lanes dedicated to motor vehicles) is some sort of "safety risk":

"Why do you want to put public safety at risk?" he asked. "These are arterial roads. They serve the entire city, not just one neighbourhood."

Leaving aside the fact, for the moment, that cycle lanes and wider sidewalks increase safety for cyclists and pedestrians, slowing traffic also makes driving safer for motorists.

Whitehead's complaint about "inconvenience" for mountain residents is at least a rational concern (if unjustified by the actual traffic volumes).

Ferguson's "safety" concern in inexplicable, unless it is some sort of inept attempt at concern trolling. Maybe he was thinking about the road rage that will be generated by some drivers at the thought that they are "losing" their longstanding entitlements to barrel through the city unimpeded ... and will also have to watch out for more pedestrians and cyclists who have the temerity to venture out onto their unjustifiably luxurious cycle lanes and sidewalks.

Has he ever attempted to actually walk along Main Street west of Hess or East of Wellington, with young children? It is a frightening experience ... quite apart from the economic dead zones it has created.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-10-02 14:52:29

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2013 at 15:04:43 in reply to Comment 92866

I want to assign every councilor and traffic planner a walking tour of the lower city equipped with an umbrella-stroller full of delicate china and a medium-sized dog on a leash.

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted October 05, 2013 at 20:31:10 in reply to Comment 92869

I second that notion. Great idea!

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted October 02, 2013 at 14:52:04

So because of a violin class, I've been seeing York Boulevard at rush hour. And going for a walk to kill time. Funny, I've lived here my whole life and never spent much time there.

Holy crap, it's worse than the 1-way streets.

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By SCRAP (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 15:13:57

I remeber Keanin when he was involved with the Hamilton Civic League. Just remember that the Chamber represents business, not the entire community, which includes many other voices in the mix.

It is hard to make everyone happy, however in my experiences, too many people are unhappy with the world we live in.

Some people are too fearful to even think about real change, they cannot wrap their heads around complex issues.

So I attended the Council of Canadians meeting held at the spec, in whcih Steve Bruist talked about his story Code Red. Lots of graphs were clearly showed the same picture, the old city of hamilton is suffering, One interesting piece of info showed that teen mothers in Hamilton is heger then some other communities such as Burlington or even Oakvill, however abortion rates were very high in areas like burlington and Oakville. Even abortion was illegal, teen mothers in those areas would be considerably higher then those reported in hamilton in Code Red. Number, figures can always be twisted, revamped, to target an audience, that audience you are trying to get to pay attention, but when one really looks at numbers, there is a real story that may not being told.

Thanks for your thoughts Ryan

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted October 05, 2013 at 20:32:32 in reply to Comment 92872

I attended that meeting, too. The number of mothers and children suffering in the city is unimaginable.

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By Rimshot (anonymous) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 15:45:01

Compared to other nightclubs in town, there's no cover and no dress code. Some will mistake that for a business model.

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By jason (registered) | Posted October 02, 2013 at 19:48:00

I'm perplexed by the comments yesterday that "Main St is our number one competitive advantage over Toronto".

Really?? We are outperforming Toronto?

http://business.financialpost.com/2013/0...

Toronto 1985 - http://chuckmantorontonostalgia.files.wo...

Toronto future skyline including buildings under construction - http://metronewsca.files.wordpress.com/2...

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By Kiely (registered) | Posted October 04, 2013 at 13:28:52 in reply to Comment 92879

Since moving here I have developed the opinion that Hamilton may in fact be the hyperbole and BS capital of Ontario. Our civic leaders just pour it on us ad nauseam.

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By AnjoMan (registered) | Posted October 03, 2013 at 15:49:01 in reply to Comment 92879

All of Toronto's major roads downtown are more pedestrian/cyclist friendly than Main or King (Even University, which is 6 lanes in some places), and they are also all much bigger economic drivers. So yeah, that is a sensless comment if I ever heard one.

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted October 03, 2013 at 08:27:36

And the comment that we need to worry about commuters on the 403 having an alternative if there's a back-up there (?) I just don't understand this logic. Do Burlington, Oakville and Mississauga City Councils worry about proving alternatives to QEW traffic in case of a traffic jam? No, they don't. But Hamilton has to provide this off-ramp for commuters and the fast city streets to keep them moving.

Would somebody progressive PLEASE move to Ancaster and unseat Ferguson in 2014.

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By DBC (registered) | Posted October 03, 2013 at 09:29:07 in reply to Comment 92888

Bang on! We are the only city in Southern Ontario (acutally probably anywhere) where one gets off the highway "to make time".

Probably explains why we are also the only city in Southern Ontario that has exits from a 400 Series highway that enter into LIVE traffic!

If the cost of unchecked urban sprawl is sitting in congested highway traffic; then that's the cost. If development fees don't cover the cost of new roads - oh well, that's that. Live with the choices that you have made and don't expect other people who made different choices - yes, that's right, many people actually choose not to embrace the "suburban dream" lifestyle - to subsidize the ones you have made through higher taxes and a compromised quality of life.

Start charging the true cost of sprawl and if these one way streets are so great - let's roll them out across the entire city. I for one am tired of having to stop for red lights on Fennell and Mohawk........and the congestion on Upper James and Golflinks - intolerable.

Comment edited by DBC on 2013-10-03 09:32:20

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 03, 2013 at 09:30:58 in reply to Comment 92890

The driving time between Eastgate and McMaster is identical whether you take QEW/403, RHVP/Linc/403 or Main/King. There is something seriously wrong with that.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted October 07, 2013 at 20:25:30 in reply to Comment 92892

Why?

Taking the highway (either one) is many miles more than taking the Queenston - King route. Of course the highway will find it tough to compete with driving in a straight line. 5k of two way streets, 7k of one way along King and then 2k of two way traffic on Main.

Once we start ripping down some of the old dilapidated buildings downtown and build some new condo towers and have housing units that people actually want to live in, traffic will become a lot worse than it is now.

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By your wright (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2013 at 10:32:30 in reply to Comment 92980

the only thing standing in the way of downtown renewal is that we haven't ripped enough old buildings down! We just don;t have SPACE to succeed!

LOGIC FTW!

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By Vod Kann (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2013 at 14:41:55

Do we have to use the "slapping" metaphor? With so much domestic violence going on I expected something classier....

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By Mal (anonymous) | Posted October 04, 2013 at 16:29:48

Hamilton is arguably more of a face-palming joint.

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By highwater (registered) | Posted October 04, 2013 at 16:36:07 in reply to Comment 92924

Mal FTW!

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By Joshua (registered) | Posted October 05, 2013 at 20:30:41

You don't need another person telling you that you've written well. What you need is movement on these issues, actual political action that reminds us what the ancient Greeks always knew, Humans are political animals. I'd like to say that e-mailing or telephoning or meeting your councillor will help, but I'm truly not sure that it will. Perhaps a petition will help.

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted October 07, 2013 at 17:17:57

"Traffic volumes on lower city streets are low and falling, and all the lane capacity that is currently dedicated to automobile lanes could be much better used to build a continuous network of bike lanes and wider, safer, more comfortable sidewalks."

Ryan, I wish that you would post the source for the numbers in that table. I find some of the declines to be highly suspect. My guess is that the 2000 numbers versus the 2010 numbers were not taken at the same time or where not averaged over a longer period of time. Better use of time series data would help.

In any event, even if these numbers are correct that doesn't mean that ""Traffic volumes on lower city streets are low.." or that we should invest in bike lanes or safer, wider sidewalks. Just what is so unsafe about the sidewalks we have now? And I say that as an avid walker of streets in Hamilton.

I agree that we need to convert some of these one-way streets to two-way esp. King and Main (I made this point on this site several times).

However, we don't need bike lanes. People don't use them. There have been bike lanes on West 5th between Mohawk and Limeridge for years and I have never seen anybody use them (I live in the area). Nor have I seen people use the bike lanes they put in near the Meadowlands in Ancaster.

People bike largely for pleasure and they can do that in parks or sidewalks or they can ride on the roads in that lanes that we currently have (it should be safer since volumes are down so much according to your numbers, wouldn't it?)

Canada is a cold climate and we live in a city with an escarpment where people are constantly going up and down. This makes biking an unattractive option in Hamilton specifically. But for some reason that doesn't stop you from lobbying for the use of taxpayer dollars to build bike lines that will not be used and will be a waste of money.

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By moylek (registered) - website | Posted October 08, 2013 at 10:13:52 in reply to Comment 92975

I try to consider Capitalist more the a self-blinkered troll, I really do. I try. I'm going to try once more and respond to a few of his points assuming 1) that he really believes what he says, 2) that he is open to argument and demonstration of opinion-altering facts, and 3) that he is not alone in his misconceptions.

So ...

In any event, even if these numbers are correct that doesn't mean that ""Traffic volumes on lower city streets are low.." or that we should invest in bike lanes or safer, wider sidewalks. Just what is so unsafe about the sidewalks we have now? And I say that as an avid walker of streets in Hamilton.

Safety aside, wider sidewalks make walking easier and more appealing. Many city sidewalks don't even allow two people walking abreast to stay abreast and pass a third person walking in the other direction. Walking down the sidewalk is a constant process of dodge-and-weave, even when it's not particularly busy. Not to mention that one is doing that dodging and weaving next to rushing traffic on Main and King; not appealing.

However, we don't need bike lanes. People don't use them. There have been bike lanes on West 5th between Mohawk and Limeridge for years and I have never seen anybody use them (I live in the area). Nor have I seen people use the bike lanes they put in near the Meadowlands in Ancaster.

I've spent time biking in NYC, Montreal and Boston recently: where there are broad, safe-feeling lanes which either through or to places people need to go, bike lanes appear to be used. Perhaps what you mean to say is "people don't use token, skinny bike lanes in the middle of high-capacity roads running past high-way on ramps."

People bike largely for pleasure and they can do that in parks or sidewalks or they can ride on the roads in that lanes that we currently have (it should be safer since volumes are down so much according to your numbers, wouldn't it?)

In my part of town, most cyclists are clearly biking to and from McMaster and downtown for school, work or shopping.

Canada is a cold climate and we live in a city with an escarpment where people are constantly going up and down. This makes biking an unattractive option in Hamilton specifically. But for some reason that doesn't stop you from lobbying for the use of taxpayer dollars to build bike lines that will not be used and will be a waste of money.

How do you explain Montreal? Much harsher winters than Hamilton and built on the side of a mountain. In Hamilton, I rarely go up the escarpment for any reason, not on my bike nor in my truck: I live and bike on the relatively flat lower city, as do many people I know. To pretend that we are so goddam special that we can't possibly bike here must take a act will.

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted October 08, 2013 at 09:55:35 in reply to Comment 92975

I wish that you would post the source for the numbers in that table.

As we've already noted multiple times, the sources for both the 2000 and 2010 numbers are the City's own traffic counts.

However, we don't need bike lanes. People don't use them.

The facts do not support your hypothesis. To the contrary, cities that build continuous, high quality bike lane networks experience large increases in cycling. These days, even cities that don't build continuous, high quality bike lane networks are experiencing increases in cycling, albeit much smaller increases - for example, Hamilton.

In Hamilton, when we install bike network at all we paint skinny, perfunctory bike lanes onto otherwise fast, car-oriented streets in suburban areas that are almost guaranteed not to attract a lot of cyclists.

I've been riding daily in mixed traffic since I was in my 20s and I wouldn't be crazy enough to try and ride my bike on Golf Links Road across the highway:

http://goo.gl/maps/n5MgR

We should be adding bike lanes where they are most likely to attract latent cyclists, i.e. the urban, lower city streets that have all this excess lane capacity.

People bike largely for pleasure

In places where it is viable to use a bike for utility trips (commuting, errands, etc.), people use bikes for such things. Designing a bike network around the assumption that people only ride for recreation would be like telling motorists they're welcome to cruise around Cayuga Speedway.

and they can do that in parks or sidewalks

So now you are encouraging cyclists to break the law? It is illegal - and highly dangerous - to ride on the sidewalk.

or they can ride on the roads in that lanes that we currently have (it should be safer since volumes are down so much according to your numbers, wouldn't it?)

It's actually more dangerous to ride on a multi-lane road with excess capacity because it means drivers can go that much faster if there is no other traffic. This is why we should be turning those excess lanes into protected bike lanes: they are safer and more comfortable for cyclists, safer and more comfortable for drivers (who don't have to swerve around cyclists), and safer and more comfortable for pedestrians (who are physically separated from cars and don't have to worry about cyclists on the sidewalk).

They also reduce wear-and-tear on the road, improve air quality, improve public health, improve socioeconomic equity for people who can't or don't want to pay for a car, and make the city a more attractive home for young people.

Canada is a cold climate and we live in a city with an escarpment where people are constantly going up and down. This makes biking an unattractive option in Hamilton specifically.

This is garden-variety Hamilton exceptionalism. Lots of cities that are hilly, funny-shaped, uneven and have all different varieties of weather manage to have cycling rates more than 10 times higher than Hamilton - places like Minneapolis, Boulder, Eugene, Montreal and Trondheim - and they all achieve this by building continuous, high-quality cycling networks.

So please stop claiming against all evidence that Hamilton is somehow different from anywhere else on earth and things that are proven to work in a wide variety of cities of different sizes, geographies and climates somehow will not work here.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-10-08 09:57:26

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By seancb (registered) - website | Posted October 07, 2013 at 18:59:27 in reply to Comment 92975

"Ryan, I wish you'd post more facty facts than the facts you post. Now here are all of my opinions about why your facts are not facty enough!"

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By Capitalist (anonymous) | Posted October 08, 2013 at 09:42:44 in reply to Comment 92976

All I asked for was the source for those numbers. If you can send it to me then please do so. If not then add something constructive or go back to the playground.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted October 07, 2013 at 20:09:49

Wow pretty out there even for you. Looks like you went to the slap bar too many times. If Hamilton were the only city to go through the devastation of the core I would the first to demand one way streets be abolished BUT that is not the case. Hundreds of cities across North America went through the exact same thing at exactly the same time. Nothing to do with one way streets. Now a few decades later things are changing, slowly. Not just here but in every other city across North America. We have changed a few streets back to two way and some like James have done well others not far away some like John have seen pretty much no change. The fact that James has always been a commercial centre has had more to do with the change than the direction of traffic.

We have an efficient safe road network and you want to change that. To create traffic problems so that LRT can finally make sense. Then a billion dollars later you'll have that train you've always wanted.

We don't need to change the direction of the traffic and we certainly don't need to spend a billion on a train.

Me thinks that you've gone to that strange little nightclub one time to many.





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By DM (anonymous) | Posted October 11, 2013 at 15:55:16 in reply to Comment 92977

Well said. The devastation of the core is grossly exaggerated. If it's so devastated why are new businesses opening successfully in the core? Clearly the direction of the street has nothing to do with anything other than some people feel it worked in a city that they don't live in. Why is barton so ghastly when the streets have run in 2 directions for 57 years.

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