Probably no street in Provo better illustrates the need for frequent streets — and the tragedy of not having them — than Freedom Boulevard. Freedom is a major arterial road in Provo and so according to the conventional wisdom should be thriving. With all those cars, someone should stop at the area businesses. Right?
Wrong, actually. As it turns out, Freedom is filled with blight, ugly and underperforming strip malls, and vacant buildings. These problems extend from the road’s beginning in south Provo all the way up to the University Parkway intersection in north Provo. To be clear, there are some fantastic businesses along this road that I absolutely love. But for the most part, they’re tucked away in development that should be so much more.
Though there are many decrepit sections of Freedom, one of the worst happens to be where my own office is located. This stretch of road continues for half a mile without a single crosswalk, stop sign or intersection. The speed limit is 30 mph, though 40 mph is more common and 50 mph is not unusual. The image below shows this stretch of road and the Daily Herald offices are located across the street and just north of Taylor’s Bike Shop.
The image below shows the view standing in front of my office. That squat building across the street is the Division of Workforce Services, a destination that gets a fair amount of traffic throughout the day.
But significantly in that picture, the bus stop for anyone coming from the north is in the foreground, across the street from the workforce building. That means people trying to reach the workforce building have two options: run across the street through speeding traffic, or walk more than a half mile to the nearest intersection in order to reach a destination that is only about 50 yards away. Most people opt to run.
Neither of those options are good and, more importantly, neither would be necessary if this street was designed to accommodate pedestrians, rather than actively imperil them.
The point is that Freedom makes it hard for people to get to their destinations, even if those destinations are literally right in front of them. But this isn’t just true for people visiting the workforce building, its true for visitors to area businesses as well and it has negative economic repercussions.
In the picture below, you can see the sign for my newspaper, as well as a bike shop in the distance. The bike shop building also houses a florist, a pizza place, a dry cleaners and possibly some other businesses.
I happen to love pizza, flowers and bikes, but I’ve never visited any of these businesses before, during or after a work day. Despite being just a stone’s throw from my work, they’re just too hard to reach; I’d either have to drive to them, walk up to a cross walk, or run through traffic.
Those businesses are established and have won loyal customer followings despite Freedom Blvd, but other area stores haven’t faired as well. The picture below shows the mixed use Alpine Village development.
Alpine Village is designed to house students and young adults upstairs, and includes a row of retail spaces on the ground floor.
But despite being finished several years ago, the building remains mostly empty. When I was there recently, I counted around seven vacant store fronts and about four filled store fronts. (Those numbers are rough because there were a few spaces with stuff piled inside and I wasn’t sure if they being used or not.)
Even worse, the development seems doomed. Despite having a large, on-site population and relatively high vehicle traffic, most businesses close extraordinarily fast. There’s also virtually no foot traffic nearby.
Which is too bad because mixed use development can be a wonderful thing if done correctly. Unfortunately, the street makes that an almost impossible task. Consider, for example, what sits across from Alpine Village:
That charming building is operated by the Army Reserve. It generates almost no foot traffic, and even if it did those people would have an extremely difficult time reaching the stores in Alpine Village across the street. And while Alpine Village looks nice and even New Urban-ish, it’s really just a dressed up suburban strip mall because it relies almost exclusively on vehicle traffic for economic support. Unfortunately, cars are able to travel quickly and unobstructed passed the building, so few actually do stop.
Freedom Blvd further compounds all of these problems by being ugly and unloveable, by not having bike lanes, and by having inadequately narrow and exposed sidewalks. Frankly, it’s a wonder any business can get by and those that do must truly be amazing to overcome these obstacles.
But the real problem is that a public street is thwarting local economic growth. This also happens on University Ave in Provo, among other places. Probably the best example in Utah County is State Street in Orem, which is so ugly and blighted that I dare not post a picture of it here lest I break the internet.
The easiest solutions are to construct better sidewalks, install bike lanes, and slow down cars.
The harder but better solution is to make more frequent streets. Cross walks, at least, between the Daily Herald bus stop and the other side of the street would help people trying to get to the workforce building, and would drive office workers to nearby businesses. If the area became more walkable, infill would become possible.
As conditions currently stand, however, there’s no reason to expect any improvement. Alpine Village isn’t really new anymore, but has made virtually no progress toward capitalizing on its potential and its design. It provides a case study in what causes many of Provo’s streets to experience blight, and shows how the best intentions fail when they’re not connected with the right kind of streets.