Monday, July 22, 2013

Critical Mass on University Boulevard

Univ Blvd 3
University Boulevard in Moon Township, looking south from the entrance to the Robert Morris University-owned Holiday Inn. Note the absence of a center turn lane and sidewalks, as well as the utility lines in close proximity to the roadway.                        Credit: Google Maps
In the course of growing up and working in the northwest suburbs of Pittsburgh, I learned to develop a love/hate relationship with a stretch of road in Moon Township now known as University Boulevard.

It's been known by that name since 2003, when the Moon Supervisors changed the name, in part, to "promote one of (Moon's) many assets and one of its largest employers, Robert Morris University", according to a Beaver County Times story.

Prior to that, the road went by two names - Narrows Run Road from Thorn Run Road up to the intersection with Brodhead Road, where it became Beers School Road to the end at what is now Business I-376.

Aside from any humor associated with Robert Morris changing from a "beer school" to a "university", the name change does make sense, even if the road itself largely fails to live up to its namesake. 10 years after the fact, there is still no dedicated left turn lane to access RMU's main entrance if coming from the east. This will be a recurring theme down the page.

We All Live in the (old) Yellow Submarine...

As RMU has grown, it has naturally sought more student housing. In late 2011 it acquired the struggling Holiday Inn Airport, where it houses some students and stated at the time of the purchase their eventual intent to turn the facility into a dorm in toto. Those of you who spent your formative adult years in this area may remember the hotel fondly for the Yellow Submarine nightclub in the basement.

RMU's stated 3-year plan to convert the building to a dorm is apparently being accelerated, with the announcement this past week that the hotel will close in preparation for full dormitory operations in August.

They need a zoning variance from Moon Township to accomplish this, and not everyone is pleased, for "varying" reasons. Moon Supervisors were quoted in the media expressing significant concerns over traffic flow on University - specifically with the current amount of cars traveling this state-maintained roadway, and the potential for more with the development of a new Walmart store at the site of the former West Hills Shopping Center. They also don't like the prospect of the property being largely taken off the tax rolls.

Township officials also cited the lack of pedestrian walkways, and the already established difficulty in turning left out of the facility onto University to head toward campus - one factor that an RMU Vice President dismissed by asserting that "students living at the Holiday Inn would not be driving to campus".

It made me wonder how exactly the school would go about accomplishing that - denying campus parking permits to residents of the proposed "Yorktown Hall"? Regardless, a shuttle service still has to make that left turn, and enterprising college students can indeed opt to walk or ride bicycles - just like their younger counterparts at Moon Area High School, right across the street.

That's right - the school complex, which includes Moon's stadium and athletic fields, also sits along this stretch of University, along with several other hotels and commercial establishments that sprung up from the 1960's through the 1980's, when the old Airport was located just a fraction of a mile away. This corridor abuts residential areas to the east as well.

Wait Just a Minute, Bobby U...

The Moon Supervisors held a public hearing on July 1, which they continued to this evening after taking testimony and conducting a lengthy executive session, which caused the meeting to extend past midnight.

Based on these media reports, it seems that RMU's timetable for closing the hotel, laying off 60 people, and readying the building for conversion into a dormitory in time for move-in day did not anticipate these regulatory difficulties. Eyewitness accounts from the meeting seemed to indicate that RMU representatives were surprised by the community push-back.

It sounds as if both the issues and stakeholder concerns are sufficiently complex as to warrant a closer look at...well, everything.

I am inclined to agree - The media reports seemed to indicate that discussions about traffic improvements only focused on sidewalks. While I'm not anything approaching a traffic engineer, I don't think it takes that background to see that it's a mess up there on many fronts, with the potential to only get worse with additional development and traffic loading.
Univ Blvd Master
University Boulevard seen south of Moon Clinton Road, with businesses and other facilities labeled.   Credit: Google Maps / John Linko
Things Can Only Get Better...uh, right?

As illustrated above, there are numerous commercial entrances and exits along the stretch of University south of Moon Clinton Road. Many of these entrances are not coordinated, and many parking lots are isolated from one another. The roadway itself is inadequate - it lacks a center turn lane, which would facilitate turn-offs into these local businesses, as well as provide for a smooth transition into left turn lanes at signaled intersections - like the one at the main RMU campus entrance.

Speaking of signaled intersections, there is half of one at Tiger Trail (the entrance to the school complex) that could be expanded into a 4-way intersection, to provide egress from the collective parking areas of the Holiday Inn, Doubletree Hotel, and Hampton Inn. The existing entry/exit points could be converted into entrances only, with the new intersection providing an additional entrance and a safe, signaled exit for the proposed dormitory and adjacent hotels. I've tried to rough this out in the illustration below.

Univ Blvd 2
Close-up of area at intersection of University and Tiger Trail, with illustration of how traffic could flow through the dormitory and hotels to a new 4-way intersection.            Credit: Google Maps / John Linko
New Kid on the Block

Among the numerous other things that would have to happen to make this feasible are connecting the proposed dormitory's parking areas to those of the Doubletree, and securing easements for the property between the two buildings, which is the former location of Betlyn Heating.

This is the property marked as DACOH /Covelli, which currently hosts a seemingly unoccupied house and outbuilding that likely pre-dates the surrounding development, along with numerous mature trees and a large grassy area in front of the Doubletree.

DACOH Holdings LLC is the new owner as of this past April, according to Allegheny County property records. DACOH is the real estate holdings arm of Covelli Enterprises, a Warren, Ohio-based company which describes itself as the "largest franchisee of Panera and O'Charley's" restaurants.

Does this mean that a Panera Bread or other establishment could be coming to this corridor in the near future as well? What does that portend for the traffic situation?

Moon Township Manager Jeanne Creese, contacted last week, stated that the township has received no development application from the new owners, and had no other information beyond knowing that the property was sold. Messages left for DACOH's Pennsylvania representative were not returned.

Fail to Plan...Plan to Fail

Ms. Creese also stated that PennDOT requires a traffic impact study from those desiring to make development changes that may affect roadway capacity. PennDOT District 11 spokesman Steve Cowan, responding to an e-mail inquiry, stated that a traffic study for the intersection at Business 376 was completed in 2009, and that "We are not aware of any other planned activities on University".

That study was executed for Moon Township's Transportation Authority, described on the Township website as "established in 1987 to promote economic and infrastructure development in Moon Township".

This authority was also in the news recently, as the Moon Area School Board voted July 15 to end its relationship with the authority, a move that find its resolution only in the courts. This appears to be a very shortsighted action on the part of the school district, given what seems to be an obvious need for cooperation to manage traffic literally at the doorstep of the district's core facilities.

Hopping Away 

When thinking about what happens when too many things are going on in one general area at the same time, the term critical mass pops into my head. There are several definitions for this, depending on the context in which it is being used. In physics, it defines "the smallest amount of fissile material needed for a sustained nuclear chain reaction". 

That's what this gradual ramping up of activity along University Boulevard feels like to me, along with the feeling that this traffic corridor is a pot full of water on a stove, and we commuters, consumers, students, and full-time residents are all frogs in that pot.
What happens when the heat starts to get turned up?

Without any improvements in traffic flow management, along with reasonable development controls and other coordination efforts, what will an autumn Saturday look like in the future, when it's quite possible that typical Saturday traffic in and out of Walmart and Giant Eagle will be complicated by a youth basketball tournament at Moon High School and an RMU home football game - all at the same time?

I know one thing - there will be a new Walmart in Economy Borough before there is one in Moon, and it will likely be a lot easier for me to get to.

Hope in Collaboration

There is, however, another definition of critical mass - one from the area of social dynamics: "A sufficient number of adopters of an innovation in a social system so that the rate of adoption becomes self-sustaining and creates further growth". This concept is illustrated, albeit simplistically, by the following:

I'm no theoretical mathematician or economist, but I can see the value of this thinking when it comes to reinventing University Boulevard. I'm wondering if some of the traditional attitudes that may stand in the way of making something unique happen represent the 'blonde' in the film clip - attitudes such as non-cooperation, profiteering, and NIMBY.

This extends not only to those engaged in private enterprise, but also to those governmental entities with a significant operational and financial stake that are saddled with the perception - and/or reality - that they are obstructionist and/or combative.

Included as well is a large, privately held, not-for-profit institution that attempts to frame itself as a benevolent community asset, when the reality leans further toward an enterprise engaged in aggressive growth for the fulfillment of its mission, that is used to getting its way.
That these institutions are both in the business of education brings to bear even further the need for innovative solutions, before the wrong kind of critical mass becomes a reality.

The level of cooperation required, and the multiple of layers of stakeholders involved - Local government, PennDOT, multiple above and below-ground utilities, private property owners - is potentially daunting if substantial yet necessary changes to this multi-purpose corridor are to occur.

But think of the advantages to all if everyone will work not only for themselves, but also for the group.

Best wishes to all stakeholders as the process continues to unfold and evolve.