Revitalizing Kalamazoo: Transforming One-Way Streets to Ignite Downtown Foot Traffic

An empty street in downtown Kalamazoo. (Downtown Kalamazoo via Facebook)

By Kyle Kaminski

June 21, 2023

More than $12 million in funding from President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law will enable the city of Kalamazoo to redesign its downtown traffic flow—and it could bring in tens of millions of dollars in new revenue for local businesses.

KALAMAZOO—Judy Sarkozy has a storybook vision for her downtown bakery. 

When she started Sarkozy Bakery & Cafe in 1978, she pictured a cozy and inviting bake shop strategically nestled among the bustling streets of the city center. The large windows were to showcase the delectable treats within—enticing shoppers, tourists, nearby office workers, and all other passersby with the aroma of freshly baked goods wafting down the sidewalk. 

More than 40 years later, her aspirations for that vibrant Kalamazoo bakery are an unfulfilled dream—a consequence of a downtown that just wasn’t designed for her customers, she said. 

Judy Sarkozy shows off freshly baked goods at her bakery in Kalamazoo. (Sarkozy Bakery via Facebook)

“We really need a friendly city area instead of businesses on a highway,” Sarkozy told The ‘Gander this week. “That’s what it is: Michigan Avenue is essentially a highway nowadays. It’s busy. There are semi-trucks and 18-wheelers, and as a result, we just don’t get any foot traffic.”

Sarkozy isn’t alone. Several other nearby restaurateurs and local business owners have also long recognized the unfortunate reality of operating a business in downtown Kalamazoo: the city was designed largely for time-crunched commuters—and not for leisurely downtown shoppers.

But now, thanks to a $12.3 million federal grant awarded this year through President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the landscape of downtown Kalamazoo is poised for big changes.

Over the next decade, most of the city’s one-way streets (including the major thoroughfares of Kalamazoo and Michigan avenues) will be slowly converted to allow for two-way traffic, slowing traffic and creating a more pedestrian-friendly downtown area in southern Michigan. And totally rethinking the downtown design is set to offer a big lift for the city’s downtown businesses.

Rethinking Downtown 

For the last 58 years, the two main downtown thoroughfares of the city of roughly 73,000 people have operated largely under one goal: to get the people where they need to go—and quickly. 

Michigan Avenue goes east. Kalamazoo Avenue goes west. And for drivers who happen to zip past their destinations, it’s often easier to keep on driving than to take a side-street turnaround. 

It’s a model that was designed for efficiency. One-way streets can handle far more vehicles per hour. And as more automobiles started filling streets in the early 20th century, engineers viewed one-way traffic as a method to reduce congestion and make it simpler to navigate the city.

But along the way, Kalamazoo learned a lesson: Faster traffic isn’t always good for business.

In recent years, the busier, car-filled streets have made it less likely for people to linger in front of store windows, sit down for coffee, or grab a cold beer from a local brewery. Local business owners now describe the streets as speedways rather than access points for commerce. 

An aerial view of downtown Kalamazoo. (Downtown Kalamazoo via Facebook)

“I don’t know of any thriving downtown areas with big, five-lane roads that have cars whizzing by at 40 mph,” said Mike Adams, general manager at the longstanding Coney Island on Main Street. “People come into our city and then they leave just as quickly as they got here, because that’s how our roads are built—and it just doesn’t make sense for a downtown area.”

Reports show that policymakers’ historic obsession with reducing commuting times also effectively severed the predominantly Black neighborhood on the north side of the city, which has led to lingering inequities that shaped (and still pervade) the city today.

Modern research shows that vehicles also stop less frequently on one-way streets—making travel more difficult for bikers and pedestrians. Drivers also tend to punch the gas on one-way streets, and studies have linked them to higher rates of traffic crashes and related injuries.

“If you spend any time downtown, you’ll see how fast traffic moves through here,” said Stephanie Ingram, general manager at Saugatuck Brewing Co. “Anything to slow down the traffic will not only be safer for people, but should also help bring more people in the door.”

Historic Investments

Over the last three years, Biden has signed several major pieces of economic legislation, including the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Inflation Reduction Act. Together, they make up what the Biden administration calls its “Investing in America” agenda to spur economic growth, grow the middle class, and boost living standards.

New reports have described the legislation as the country’s “most ambitious industrial strategy” since the creation of the interstate highway system following WWII. The laws include investments to bolster manufacturing, improve wages, and accelerate a clean energy transition.

President Joe Biden signs the American Rescue Plan Act in 2021. (Joe Biden via Facebook)

In Michigan, the legislation has spurred dozens of projects—including new battery manufacturing plants for electric vehicles, key improvements to the Soo Locks, a project to replace I-375 and reconnect Detroit, and plans to solve the streetscape problem in Kalamazoo.

Exact designs haven’t been finalized, but the $12.3 million grant announced in February will enable the city to install new traffic lights and restripe the roads to accommodate the shift in traffic. New medians, bike lanes and sidewalks, are also under consideration.

Kalamazoo Avenue is set to be converted to two-way traffic first, followed by Michigan Avenue, and eventually, Main, South and Lovell streets—as well as some other work on adjacent roads.

“It’s a great move for the city of Kalamazoo,” said Alex Wells, co-owner of Sarkozy Bakery. “We would really benefit from slowing things down and connecting the downtown area. Kalamazoo has a remarkably intact downtown, and the traffic isn’t allowing us to take full advantage of it.”

New reports from the Center for American Progress estimate that converting the downtown streets in Kalamazoo to allow for two-way traffic will generate up to $20 million in new annual retail revenue—and could lead to the development of 52,000 more square feet of retail space.

The report also found the federal investments—and the project in Kalamazoo in particular—will lead to a significant boost in property values, demonstrating how sometimes subtle policy choices can create a much broader positive impact on local communities. 

The city of Lansing is also in the midst of a similar, state-funded project that began in 2019 to convert several of its one-way corridors in the downtown area to allow for two-way traffic. 

Mayor Andy Schor said he expects the project will ultimately help make the city more walkable, boosting local business and also attracting more young workers looking for a place to call home. The work in Lansing still isn’t quite finished, but Schor said he’s already seeing the benefits.

“A good, vibrant downtown has a mix of businesses and housing, and two-way streets keep them connected,” Schor said. “It’s important for communities to recognize when it’s time for a change. In Lansing, we’ve seen the light and we’ve learned from those mistakes of the past.”

Author

  • Kyle Kaminski

    Kyle Kaminski is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than a decade of experience covering news across Michigan. Prior to joining The ‘Gander, Kyle worked as the managing editor at City Pulse in Lansing and as a reporter for the Traverse City Record-Eagle.

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