The Social Mill

Mill Avenue, a street near the ASU Tempe campus, is paved with entertainment. The northernmost section of the road before Tempe Town Lake teems with clubs, restaurants, and shops. This part of the avenue, called the Mill District, plays a critical role in the local economy and culture. There’s no livelier place to be found in all of the Phoenix Metropolitan area – come the weekend, thousands of people flock to dance, eat, and shop. But Mill suffers from a design flaw. I had just finished eating at Corleone’s, a restaurant about a block and a half away from the Light Rail station. According to my timetable, the next train would be arriving in four minutes. Four minutes is, at least in theory, more than enough time to traverse one and a half of Mill’s undersized blocks. In practice, I was held up by two traffic lights on my way there.

I missed the train and had to wait twenty extra minutes in the dark, warm summer night. Wiping the sweat from my face and cursing Henry Ford’s name, I recalled a newspaper article that mentioned a proposal to block the street from cars. The Mill District should be permanently closed to cars to improve safety, encourage additional commerce on Mill as well as on nearby streets, and create a much-needed public place for the citizens of Tempe.

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Erecting barricades on either side of the Mill District to keep cars out would save the lives and time of both drivers and pedestrians. The traffic through Mill can be thought of like a university student’s schedule. Pedestrians are vital classes, while drivers are clubs and jobs. Though extracurricular activities are enjoyable and enhance student life, they should not be allowed to interfere with coursework. Drivers occasionally collide with pedestrians, and in pedestrian-heavy areas like Mill, the risk of a crash is higher than usual. (It should also be mentioned that a great many establishments on Mill deal in alcohol, and alcohol tends to inhibit executive faculties like staying on sidewalks.) The Mill District is one of the few places where cars cause more problems than they solve. Just as making time to study is tough, parking on Mill is difficult. The eighty minute time limit on Tempe parking meters is not long enough for most people – simply getting into a crowded restaurant may take that long, to say nothing of actually eating. The parking garages are clustered in a group near the lake on the north end. The Mill student can avoid conflict by sticking to a strict study schedule: routing cars along a street parallel to Mill to a garage would reduce the risk of being hit.
Drivers would benefit from such an arrangement as well. Because of frequent street crossings, Mill requires sudden starts and stops, both of which are liable to cause automobile crashes. A more predictable road is a safer road, just as an uninterrupted hour of study time is infinitely more valuable than a handful of ten minute blocks. Additionally, drivers would be forced to walk a few blocks from the heart of the party to get to their vehicles. Such a policy would help ensure the most inebriated individuals do not ever make it to their cars and onto the roads and highways where they threaten others’ lives.
Roads in the Valley were not designed with bicycles in mind. Bike lanes are thin and dangerous afterthoughts that disappear from the asphalt whenever they become the least bit inconvenient for cars. By keeping Mill free of cars, bikers may zip north and south without fear of careless motorists, especially in daylight hours. Daylight compounds the available space for bicycles; the most popular establishments on Mill are closed during the day. With the car lanes empty, bicycles can roam without fear. Bicyclists are less common at night; when the daily commute is over would be invaluable to another group currently underrepresented in the city.

Street vendors and performers, though common in other cities, are uncommon in Tempe. High temperatures are at least partially to blame, but the cool summer nights and winters bring no deviation from the mean. With a vast empty expanse between defunct sidewalks, a carless Mill would see new breeds of salespeople and entertainers. Local artists could set up stands and sell their wares as they do at farmer’s markets. Food carts would surely cater to shoppers unwilling to pay more and wait longer at a full service restaurant. Existing individuals could use the extra room as well. The guitarists endemic to Mill street corners could bring additional amplifiers and other musicians with them, thus expanding their operations. Restaurants could lure customers inside with samples of signature dishes without risking police citations for obstructing the sidewalk. The clothing stores might hire models to show off the latest fashions for sale. Any business can come up with a way to advertise itself given a public place to advertise in. Businesses close to Mill would also benefit.
The areas surrounding Mill would see bigger profits as well. Cars that would normally travel north and across the lake via Mill would be forced west. ASU lies to the Mill District’s immediate east and prevents meaningful north-south movement. The first major street to Mill’s west, Ash Avenue, does not even begin to approach Mill’s grandeur. The buildings on Ash are generally old and run-down. The flow of cars along Ash would empower Ash’s businesses by the same mechanism that begets cities along interstate highways and around seaports. With more people seeing and interacting with its businesses as a matter of course, Ash Avenue would surge along with the Mill District.

One might wonder – for every car’s worth of commerce Ash gains, would Mill not lose an equal amount? The Mill District’s shops are very focused in what they sell: custom-printed T-shirts, bulk candy, and designer clothing, to name a few specialties. Ash Avenue offers more general products – a gas station, convenience store, and coffee shop all sit within a quarter mile of each other. Special-interest items are not as readily desired as general ones. One might impulsively indulge in a latte before a long day, but it is hard to imagine the average person stopping to check out the new Autumn styles on their way to work. Someone buying from the Mill District is not doing so on whim, but on a firm intent, and intent does not strike at random. Times Square in New York City is proof that municipal economics is not a zero-sum game: despite carrying no car traffic, Times Square manages to eke out a simple life as the most important commerce hub in the city (not counting Wall Street).

Tempe lacks public places; a pedestrian Mill District could act much like a park. Tempe has only one remarkable area for the public to congregate: the park on the shores of Tempe Town Lake. Because the park is among the most important in the Phoenix metropolitan area, all manner of festivals and charity events are held there. Where can residents go to relax Saturday morning when the paths by the lake are crowded with American flags or runners for breast cancer? No alternative exists. A quiet and spacious place free of traffic is ideal. The Mill District could become all of these things during the day if cars were detoured away. With the simple addition of benches, tables, and more plants, the space could serve as a park in its own right when not hosting Tempe’s nightlife.

Tempe stands to benefit from switching off the traffic lights and painting over the lines at the Mill District. Motorists, walkers, and bicyclists alike would be safer as they move around the city. Both Mill and neighbor Ash would see economic improvements from redirecting traffic to the latter. Mill’s capacity to act as a park with only minor renovations is wasted on automobile traffic, particularly in a city where the only other major public place is reserved every other weekend. Mill transformed would be more than the nightlife hotspot it is reputed to be – the district would be able to serve a purpose at all hours of the day.

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