Walkability Belen Project moves forward with ideas for downtown


From feedback to ideas, the Belen Walkability Project is moving one step closer to creating a design plan for a safer downtown area while increasing the area's attractiveness.

The Valencia Resiliency Corp., a youth injury prevention initiative, in collaboration with the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning, held their second of three community forums last week for community members.

More than a dozen residents weighed in on ideas developed at the first meeting and an online survey to revitalize downtown Belen.

Some of the ideas include creating walking projects, plan bicycle paths and safe routes to school, community gardens, signage and crosswalks and links to the New Mexico Rail Runner station.

Responses to ideas that kept cropping up were narrowed down by Alfred Simon, director of UNM's Landscape Architecture Program and associate dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, and his three graduate students, Rachel Bakker, Alexandria Leider and Meredith Ellis.

"What we've identified are some ideas that aren't design ideas, but general ideas that we think we can push forward, but that's what we're going to want you to let us know — whether they're good ideas or not," Simon said.

Before pitching these ideas, the landscape architecture graduate students ran through problems with the downtown area.

Eliminating dead-end pathways is one problem for pedestrians and cyclists. Linking these pathways to key areas downtown would "increase the flow to all of the areas and make travel safe for the pedestrian and the cyclist," Ellis said

Identifying and connecting pedestrian and bicycle pathways to alleyways would create a comprehensive and user-friendly network to travel to and from downtown destinations, Bakker said.

Wide streets and narrow sidewalks discourage walkers and create a dangerous situation for users.

Narrowing streets could slow down traffic and accommodate for a wider, safer bike lane, Bakker said.

One low cost option to increase drivers' awareness of bicyclists is to color code the pedestrian and bike lanes with road markings, which will also aid those using them to navigate through the city.

To encourage walking throughout downtown, pedestrians need shady areas to walk along sidewalks. Placing plants, trees or structures would aid walking and biking individuals, especially during the summer months, Leider said.

The architecture students proposed creating two districts, each about four blocks wide, along Becker Avenue, including an arts and culture district for artists to live and work, and a restaurant/boutique hotel district for visitors to shop, eat and stay.

The placement of these districts was tied into existing destination points, such as the Belen Art League Gallery and the Doodlebug Park.

To aid in making these concepts come to fruition, the students pitched ideas to help the community move forward.

A temporary transformation for vacant buildings would be to create a chashama, where artists could create a window display for their art in empty buildings. This would help fill the empty space with vibrancy and add to the creativity downtown, Bakker said.

However, vacant buildings are required by the city of Belen to be boarded up due to vandalism, one participant said.

Holding inexpensive facade improvements, such as painting the outside of a building, could also "improve the quality of life," Bakker said.

Creating temporary parks and street facades could also be done in small empty lots or parking spaces with removable plants or installations that could be stored and used at a later time, Leider said.

"It gives you a place to convene or a place to sit in the street that makes it more convenient to sit and relax within this art district," she said. "It can create whimsical parks."

One participant said she loved this simple idea that could be easily created. Enhancing existing parking lots, which are under utilized, could also be done by adding plants, trees or benches.

Creating a community action day could help fix areas around the city that need tending to, such as removing graffiti and filling chipped concrete, Leider said.

This project is funded through a $6,200 grant from the 2012 Pedestrian Safety and Walkability Initiative, sponsored by the New Mexico Department of Transportation Traffic Safety Bureau.

-- Email the author at aortiz@news-bulletin.com.