2nd Street SE sucks (and that’s okay)
Should every street be a great? Can every street be a great street? Nope. Cities need spots that are about function. In Cedar Rapids 2nd St SE beween 5th Ave and 8th Ave is nothing but function. This stretch of downtown is all parking lots, loading zones, and blank walls. It’s also necessary. This space functions as a repository for the stuff that you need to help 1st Street and 3rd Street be great streets.
Just on 1st Street you have condos, offices, restaurants, with more on the way. 1st Street is meant to be experienced on foot! One of the things that makes 1st Street great is that there’s a massive parking garage on 2nd Street that can service all of these places. Cars aren’t going to disappear, but we have a choice in how thoroughly we capitulate our urban environment to their needs. The great pedestrian space on 1st Street, and that are possible on 3rd Street, benefit from having space nearby that can be used for cars without interrupting otherwise great streets.
2nd Street doesn’t forego good pedestrian infrastructure. It’s actually one of the best examples in the city of what kind of facilities should be built for pedestrians. It has wide sidewalks, comprehensive crosswalks, lighting, and even street trees. It uses this infrastructure to make it easy for people to get to the parts of downtown that are vibrant experienced on foot.
That’s why it works. Without the comprehensive pedestrian infrastructure 2nd Street would be a blackhole instead of a useful repository. You’re still supposed to walk here, from the car to the office, or theater or restaurant. The built environment encourages walking, even if the way you got there was in a car.
The ugly stuff on 2nd Street are exactly the kinds of things that you don’t want on a street where you want an active, lively pedestrian atmosphere. Much of the built environment along 2nd Street is from the era of urban renewal. There’s the back of the former downtown library (now TrueNorth) and the blank side of the downtown YMCA. We can’t go back into the past and make these buildings face the street properly, and today there are better ways and places to spend our money to make downtown a livelier place than trying to make 2nd Street lively.
But, so what? We don’t have the money or the demand to make every single street an urban paradise. We’re still a mostly car dependent town, and that probably isn’t going to change for a long time. What we do have is a downtown and core neighborhoods with great bones. 2nd Street is a showcase in how some of the ugliest parts of an urban neighborhood can service the areas that are more naturally pedestrian friendly.