In the 1950s, the police department converted Lexington's Maxwell, High, Second, Short, Mill and Upper streets to one-way. Roughly 20 years later, city planners made that same switch on Main and Vine streets.
It was the era of Urban Renewal. Downtown retail was beginning to erode with the development of suburban shopping areas such as Southland and Eastland. Turfland Mall was being opened and Fayette Mall was in the planning stages.
"They thought going to one-way would make downtown more friendly to business. That was the main consideration, not about increased traffic flow," said Chris King, the city's director of planning.
More than half a century later, some city officials see one-way streets as a flawed policy, and they are talking about reversing the changes made decades ago to downtown streets.
Scott Shapiro, senior adviser to Mayor Jim Gray, says downtown revitalization is the current goal.
"The city has spent $27 million on its Downtown Streetscape. A number of businesses are investing in downtown. We have Thursday Night Live. We have all this energy. It's like a sports car all gassed up and ready to go," Shapiro said. "What it needs is a key. What other cities have found is two-way streets is that key."
The Downtown Master Plan as well as the Downtown Streetscape Master Plan call for two-way traffic. In 2007, Urban County Council approved a study on how to convert the four pairs of one-way streets to two-way streets.
In 2009, council approved having streetscape consultant Clete Benken, along with the design firm of Kinzelman Kline Gossman, do a detailed design of Main and Vine that would eventually allow both to become two-way streets.
At that meeting Councilman Jay McChord said one-way streets were "a failed policy." In an earlier council discussion, Councilman George Myers wanted to know, "What would be the problem with just doing it? Everyone knows one-way streets are outdated and behind the times."
Using a $465,000 federal grant, the city hired Stantec consulting engineers in May to work out detailed plans for converting four pairs of one-way downtown streets to two-way: Main and Vine, Upper and Limestone, Second and Short and Maxwell and High.
The study will assess the ability of downtown's street system to accommodate current and future traffic if streets were converted. It also would help determine whether conversion can reduce driver confusion and improve access to business.
"What differs from the last study in 2007 is if there are issues we want to know what are the creative solutions. That's a big part of this study," Shapiro said.
Stantec will have meetings with downtown stakeholders, as well as three public meetings.
Tom Creasey, a civil engineer and a Stantec project manager, says public input is a key part of this. Feedback also is important, so the firm will make its findings public as it looks at individual pairs of streets.
"We won't just release everything at the end," Creasey said of the study, which is scheduled to be completed in May.
Adam Kirk, traffic engineer with the Kentucky Transportation Center at the University of Kentucky, said an advantage of one-way streets is traffic flows much faster.
"That can be a disadvantage as people travel through downtown," Kirk said. "The belief is the slower you travel, the more you stop, the more you see adjacent businesses, the more you visit them."
That is why, primarily, two-way street conversion is driven not so much from a traffic standpoint, but from downtown revitalization.
Phil Holoubek, a developer of Main & Rose condominium and mixed-use project on East Main Street, said, "My question is, do we want to let a traffic engineer determine the future of our downtown, based solely on what is best for cars without any regard for economic development initiatives?
"Or do we want to build a world-class downtown that is as friendly as possible to pedestrians and retailers ... even if it means we take two extra minutes to drive through downtown?"
With one-way streets, "It is harder to attract retail because it limits who will stop at your business," Holoubek said.
Starbucks, for example, needs drive-in morning traffic. Grocery stores need drive-home afternoon traffic.
"Main & Rose was a perfect location for a grocery, but we are on a one-way street with traffic headed in-town in the morning. As a result, we never could get a grocery," he said.
Not everybody thinks two-way streets are a good idea.
Larry Snipes, producing director of Lexington Children's Theatre, 418 West Short Street, has reservations. The children's theater brings in 45,000 schoolchildren a year to see productions, and the buses unload in front of the theater.
If Short were a two-way street, and buses turned from Broadway onto Short Street, that could potentially stop traffic in all four directions, Snipes said. In addition, "There is the safety issue of getting children safely across Short Street to our building."
Loys Mather, a retired UK professor who lives off Eastland Parkway, also gives the two-way street conversion a thumbs down.
Mather said the term "traffic calming" is another way to say "traffic congestion" and that "will likely cause many drivers like myself to avoid the area."
When the question of two-way streets downtown came up at a recent Eastland Neighborhood Association meeting, "Virtually everybody said they were opposed," Mather said.
Another Eastland resident, Al Hieb, said he is definitely opposed to two-way streets.
"We've got so much traffic now. Two-way streets would create a monumental traffic jam. It would be a nightmare to get through town," he said.
However, some people opposed to two-way streets a few years ago have had a change of heart.
Five years ago, the Fayette County Neighborhood Council asked neighborhood representatives if they favored or opposed changing one-way streets downtown to two-way.
"There was overwhelming opposition," said Emma Tibbs, former council president.
The same question was posed to representatives three months ago, and the vote was almost 50-50 in favor of changing to two-way. "I was frankly very surprised," Tibbs said.
Neighborhood representatives today are younger, and many are from suburban neighborhoods, Tibbs said. She thinks support for two-way streets speaks to a wide range of people who are interested in the vitality of downtown.
"It's not just the downtown folks who care about what's going on downtown," she said. "The things being planned for downtown like the arts and entertainment district has engaged the interest of a wide range of folks in the community."
There are trade-offs
Renee Jackson, president of the Downtown Lexington Corp., frequently tells people that one-way versus two-way streets is all about setting priorities.
"If your priority is to slow traffic and create an environment where people want to linger, buy and open retail business, then two-way is the proven better model."
But it's not without trade-offs.
"Two-way streets slow traffic a little. But create gridlock? I don't think it will," she said.
Business owner Mary Ginocchio, owner of Mulberry & Lime gift shop at 216 North Limestone, supports going two-way. "I almost feel like I should give an award to new customers who find our parking lot on the first try," she said. "And traffic in front of the shop just whizzes by."
Two-way streets will be good for businesses while helping connect the University of Kentucky with Transylvania University, said Adel Rayan, owner of Happy Falafel at 105 Eastern Avenue.
"Take Limestone as an example," he said. "The north end has higher-end restaurants. The south end has college restaurants. If people could travel back and forth very easily, look how you're connecting those two ends. And all the businesses along that stretch would benefit."
It's a trend
Mayor Gray and other two-way street supporters have looked at conversions in several other cities, including Minneapolis and Charleston, S.C.
Charleston has converted at least four streets from one- to two-way. "So far, we've had nothing but positive feedback," said Michael Mathis, transportation project manager in Charleston. "There was a little bit of pushback at first. But I think it was people who oppose change in general."
Chris Price, president of Prime South Group, a downtown development company in Charleston, said, "Typically, one-way traffic is a thoroughfare that gets people from point A to point B. It doesn't encourage people to stop, to shop, to go eat."
To have a vibrant downtown, "You've got to have people who live there, work there and socialize there. Two-way streets slow traffic, create that atmosphere of a neighborhood where everybody wants to be," said Price, who grew up in Lexington and is familiar with both cities.
Upper King Street, part of the major corridor through downtown Charleston, was "pretty much dilapidated, didn't have a lot of activity. Upper King was all one-way," he said.
The city changed Upper King to two-way, added stop lights and the rebirth began, Price said. "It's gone from a substandard area to be the hottest area in downtown Charleston."
With this success under its belt, Charleston is making plans to convert two more major corridors to two-way.
Hundreds of streets in cities from Rochester, N.Y., to Minneapolis to Berkeley, Calif., are going to two-way streets for reasons similar to Charleston, said Shapiro, on Mayor Gray's staff.
Motorists drive slower on two-way streets. Two-way streets eliminate confusion and make it easier for drivers to find their way around and create a more positive environment for pedestrians and cyclists.
"The lessons of other cities is what our consultants and we are certainly looking at," Shapiro said. "With streets across the country being converted back to two-way, there is a reason that is happening. There is a track record."
Beverly Fortune: (859) 231-3251.Twitter: @BFortune2010