Scrambling to solve a paradox whereby Water Street provides little access to or view of the Mobile River, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said one of his administration’s top priorities is improving the waterfront’s pedestrian accessibility.

After all, if you care to cross the eight lanes of traffic serving as a barrier to the city’s trademark feature, there is $160 million worth of underutilized public assets on other side.

Following-up on a trip he took to San Antonio in March to attend the Mayor’s Institute for Design, Stimpson and the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce held a forum at the University of South Alabama May 22 to expand on ideas he brought back.

According to his biography, the forum’s keynote speaker, Mukul Malhotra, is an urban planner with more than 15 years experience “addressing issues related to urban development and revitalization, transit-oriented design, sustainable environments, community connectivity, and preservation of neighborhood and city character.” Stimpson met him at the San Antonio event.

“Water Street is one of the first streets you experience whether you work in downtown or you are going through downtown,” he said. “The first experience of a city or downtown should be a very pleasing one and Water Street with its location along the water … cannot be the backyard of downtown. It should be the signature street.”

Malhotra is a principal and director of urban design at MIG, a professional services firm headquartered in Berkeley, Calif. Stimpson said the role of an urban designer in a project like the redesign of Water Street would be to assist the Alabama Department of Transportation to implement best practices, ensuring the busy corridor can still manage moderate-to-heavy vehicle traffic, simultaneously providing accommodations for others.

Stimpson said ALDOT was “95-97 percent complete” with blueprints to bring the adjoining I-10 Interstate ramps to ground level, so the timing of his emphasis on Water Street was concerted.

“That project could start as early as next year so it’s very important we get the engineering right where the end of the project connects to Water Street,” Stimpson said. “It’s amazing that ALDOT had already planned for bike trails and sidewalks so when they saw [our] plan, they were really excited and now all we have to do is make sure the connection between them is what it can be.”

Stimpson said the goal would be to try to get “the same or more traffic” through while also slowing it down and decreasing the number of lanes. Ideally, a new corridor would add wider sidewalks, green spaces and frequent, well-marked crosswalks.

At the Mayor’s Institute earlier this year, Stimpson brought the problem of accessibility to the city’s waterfront, home of the clean and spacious, but often quiet, Cooper Riverside Park, as well as the Mobile Convention Center, the Alabama Cruise Terminal and the yet-to-open GulfQuest Maritime Museum, whose projected annual attendance figures are the subject of speculation.

Malhotra called accessibility “a key move” that has been proven to attract more than pedestrian or cycle traffic.

“We have seen investment in street infrastructure is a change that attracts a lot of public and private investments,” he said.  

Malhotra, who was worked on walkability projects worldwide, said, “I haven’t seen a downtown with such great bones” and added the city should ultimately aspire to connect additional pedestrian-friendly corridors to Water Street.

“The aim is to connect all those [corridors] together and build on each asset to create something even more exciting,” he said.

Stimpson estimated the work on Water Street would begin by late 2015 or early 2016, but was less clear about its timeline for funding. ALDOT’s interstate project is estimated to cost $31 million, but no budget has been announced for Water Street. Engineers, transportation officials, downtown advocates and city staff attended Stimpson’s forum.

“They are real keen on fewer dollars coming from the federal government and from the state to spend on your roadways, while the roadways are becoming more expensive, so you really have to be clever about how you’re going to use those dollars … to make sure you get the bang for your buck,” he said.

More information about accessible streets, including “practical and implementable solutions,” is available at www.restreets.org.