A vision for Ampersand Avenue

Try as we might to forget them, we all remember the bike lanes that were painted along Ampersand Avenue last summer.

While the village’s intent was appreciated, the execution was deficient and incomplete. The project was an appropriate response to the desire to make Ampersand Avenue a safer and more comfortable street for bicyclists. Bike lanes are inexpensive to install and communities across the country are installing them as fast as they can, because encouraging bicycling brings so many financial, environmental and health benefits. So how did such a simple, logical and positive project become something everyone would prefer to forget? Why couldn’t we get this right? Why can’t we have nice things? Shouldn’t the Department of Public Works have the skills, equipment and resources to effectively install one of the most basic bicycle improvements that has been recommended in adopted village plans and policies for many years?

Leading up to the bike lane project, the village indicated it was planning water and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and repaving along Ampersand Avenue some time in the next several years. Ampersand Avenue passes through a historic neighborhood and connects many destinations within the village and beyond. We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create a great street that will bring significant benefits to the neighborhood and the community — for years to come. Creating a great street is about more than just new blacktop. Here are a few ideas we should consider as we reimagine Ampersand Avenue:

¯ Rebuild and extend the sidewalk to the village boundary to make it safer and more comfortable for pedestrians (yes, this will result in more sidewalks to plow, but DPW is fully staffed now, so it shouldn’t be a problem)

¯ Install crosswalks at intersections to make it safer for pedestrians traveling to the many destinations along the street (it is not true that crosswalks create more accidents by giving kids a false sense of security)

¯ Add bicycle lanes or a bike path to increase safety and encourage active transportation (yes, drivers like bike lanes and paths, too, because it makes their job easier and safer)

¯ Install decorative pedestrian-scale street lighting, with hangers for banners and flags, to increase safety and welcome visitors to our community (downtown isn’t the only neighborhood that deserves attractive street lights)

¯ Plant street trees because they are proven to make streets safer, lower energy costs for nearby buildings, enhance property values, and increase civic pride (yes, there is room and, yes, street trees can survive in cold climates)

¯ Maximize on-street parking to accommodate Garwood Park users, residents, and large events at the civic center (along most of the street there is room for both, so don’t accept the “bike lanes will take away your parking” fearmongering)

Before design begins, the village needs to get the community involved in the planning process. This can help to build support and enthusiasm for the project and ensure we get something much more comprehensive than a repaving project. The village could hold workshops to gather input from residents and other stakeholders. Once goals are defined, the village’s contracted engineers can design a project to meet those goals. We cannot assume that third-party engineers, how well intentioned, understand the village and its needs as well as residents and our elected board of trustees.

Let’s briefly explore why creating a people-centered Ampersand Avenue is so important. We must remember that this street has two roles. First and foremost, the street travels through a real neighborhood where real people live. Protecting the safety of those residents and enhancing neighborhood character must be our top priorities. Second, Ampersand Avenue is a corridor connecting residents and visitors to destinations including the high school, the civic center, the rail trail, mountain bike trails, athletic fields, a soon-to-be dog park, and the Ampersand Bay Resort. In its current condition, the street is not fulfilling either role well. Residents feel that vehicles travel too fast. The street has varied widths and no pavement markings, which makes it unclear where cars and bicycles belong. On-street parking is haphazard. Drainage is inadequate. The pavement is failing. The sidewalk is in severe disrepair and ends before it reaches any meaningful destination.

Any street tasked with serving as a place where people live and a corridor that others pass through to reach distant destinations must be carefully designed — otherwise, the experience is diminished for all users. Careful attention must be paid to designing the street properly and creating the best possible experience for all. The good news is that there will be overwhelming community support for doing this right!

The village’s own plans, such as the Complete Street Policy and Bicycle and Pedestrian Trail Master Plan, along with other state and national policies and guidelines, are full of battle-tested ideas that can inform the creation of great streets. They give us so much “air cover” that we can confidently take bold action to create the Ampersand Avenue our community deserves. The village board has doubled down on putting Saranac Lakers first and can continue this people-first approach by providing the leadership necessary to get this project done right.

Now is the time to reimagine Ampersand Avenue. The growing list of destinations along the corridor will result in more traffic of all kinds — from pedestrians and bicyclists to hockey caravans and delivery trucks. The street should showcase our amazing community to residents and visitors, while employing thoughtful design to remind them to respect the neighborhood through which they are passing.

We have one chance to get this right. Let’s be bold and forward thinking. Let’s demonstrate, once again, that Saranac Lake is a decidedly different place.

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This commentary was co-signed by Jeremy Evans and village trustees Kelly Brunette and Matt Scollin, Stronger Saranac Lake Committee. All three live in Saranac Lake.


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