On Tuesday, Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) and City officials broke ground on an improvement project for Frio Street, which stretches from the intersection of West César Chávez Boulevard all the way to Houston Street.
The intersections and crossings on Frio Street are mainly frequented by UTSA students and professors, who walk daily from the university’s Monterey building to the Frio building across the street to get coffee and food.
“This project is to help walkability and to help promote safety for the students coming back and forth here to UTSA and connecting with the building of architecture,” Gonzales said. “We want to promote this area as a walkable, safe environment for all users.”
The $5.1 million improvement project, made possible by funds from the 2012 bond program, includes reconfiguring existing travel lanes to accommodate bicycle lanes, four vehicular lanes, and a median that will serve as a center turn lane. Additional amenities include sidewalks, a traffic signal update on Commerce Street, pedestrian lighting benches, a traffic signal at UTSA’s mid-block crossing, and Zona Cultural streetscape enhancements. The project is slated for completion in December.
“We’re thrilled about the safety enhancements and the overall beautification of this area and we’re so excited that in a few short months we can come back and see the fruits of the labor of the design team and the City … to make a more beautiful, safe campus,” said Benjamin Perry, UTSA director of planning and development.
Some UTSA students and professors, however, said the new street design won’t solve existing problems and could even make them worse.
“These improvements along the street are a situation that isn’t as good as it ought to be,” UTSA professor of architecture William Dupont told the Rivard Report in a Tuesday phone interview. “The shortest path to get across the street is the [current crosswalk], but in the future design [pedestrians] have to cross at the intersection of Frio and Buena Vista [streets]. You will have to cross diagonally through the parking lot, and it’s awkward.”
Dupont worries that students will continue to follow the path of the old crosswalk since it’s the shortest route between the two buildings, making the situation more unsafe.
“I think it’s good that they are trying to improve the street and add the trees and the median, but right now you just go straight to where you are going and you don’t have to go into an ‘L’ shape like in [the new plan],” said one UTSA architecture student who didn’t want to be named. “[If this] will become the permanent way of crossing, I don’t think people will do it. Why walk to the corner when you can walk straight?”
Several students and faculty members sent concerned emails during the solicitation process, Dupont said, but none of the suggestions were implemented. In Dupont’s view, the design process did not balance pedestrian and traffic needs equally.
“The new median design blocks that left turn for vehicles arriving to the parking lot now, so it forces all the traffic to where all the pedestrians are forced to route now,” Dupont said.
UTSA associate professor of architecture and interior design Stephen Temple agreed. He said the new crosswalk would likely see disabled individuals forgo using the handicapped ramp at the original crosswalk and opt for a ramp made specifically for car deliveries, which is too steep.
“The pedestrian path should remain in the same place,” Temple said. “It looks like no one from the design team stood on the street and figured out what’s going on.”
UTSA student James Rivera said the enhancements will make the crossing safer.
“It’s a facelift, basically,” he said. “In my view it’s going to make it better, more scenic, and better for people to walk around. The opposition I heard was that handicapped people will be able to cross the street but once they get to the other side of the street, they’ll have to go all the way around to use [the ramp at the original crosswalk].”
Temple said the project was more about beautification than solving the core issue – safe pedestrian flow.
“They’re dumbing down things that really were fine before,” he said. “All we really need is to make it safer. The best thing would be to put a flashing light and slow the traffic to 20 mph … They can still do the aesthetic experiences … and making the lanes narrower may slow the cars slightly but not that much.”
Perry told the Rivard Report that better traffic and pedestrian signals and elements such as the median and bike lane will make the crossing safer and slow down traffic in the area.
“There’s also a median that will keep the traffic separated, which is inherently a safer design,” Perry said. “I do believe it is a safer environment.”