New concrete structures built into the middle of Western Avenue have some Oklahoma City drivers and residents confused.
Called chicanes, the curb-like constructions have been partially installed between N.W. 41st Street and N.W. 45th Street and have been pummeled by cars unaware of their existence.
“It’s been enjoyable watching people run into that chicane and run over those traffic cones,” said Kris Balaban, owner of the flower boutique A Date with Iris. “We hear a lot of brakes screeching and whatnot.”
While Balaban was describing how the chicane outside her store at N.W. 41st has caused problems for traffic, she suddenly screamed.
“Oh, it just got that mail man!”
Indeed, a U.S. Postal Service truck had driven right through the half-finished chicane and was stuck briefly on the rocks, dirt and bent orange cones that occupy what will eventually feature a Western Avenue District sign and, in theory, a safer way for pedestrians to cross the busy street.
Chicane refers to consecutive tight turns on an otherwise straight road, as on a race track. The two chicanes on Western were implemented as part of a 2007 bond issue streetscape that was designed following several public meetings and input from the business district, the area’s city councilor, urban design guru Blair Humphreys and others, according to OKC public works public information officer Shannon Cox.
Cox said the redesign of Western between 41st and 45th has progressed one block at a time on only half of the street at a time, and she called it a “completely unusual” construction process.
“I think that’s why there have been so many confusions, even though we had all these public meetings and communications that we’ve tried,” Cox said. “That’s a heavily trafficked area, so when you close part of it down, it sends people all around.”
Construction delayed by district
Cox and several employees of businesses confirmed that the district’s association asked for construction to be halted in December during the peak of holiday shopping. The association’s director did not return a phone call for this story.
“I think they needed to do both sides of the street at one time,” said Balaban, whose business is approaching its 10th year on Western. “They should have just ripped off the whole band aid. It’s just ugly right now. I think it will be pretty in time.”
Workers completed the east side of the street before Christmas and are now working their way south along the west side of Western. Cox estimated the work will be done “by the Spring” or a little later, depending upon weather. She said her office has received about three calls of drivers complaining about or questioning the chicanes.
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“When you go back to why it was designed the way it is, because you are talking about more pedestrian activity, you want slower traffic,” she said.
Several people asked about the chicanes and the streetscape Wednesday expressed displeasure and amusement at the concrete obstacles.
“Weren’t those a dumb idea?” said a construction worker who was working on the street. “Ask anybody driving along here. They’ll tell you.”
A man who works in a Western Avenue restaurant also asked to remain anonymous, but he shared his personal story with the traffic-calming devices.
“I know I nailed that thing about a month ago — dead sober,” the man said. “It’s a pain in the ass.”
The restaurant employee said the rest of the new streetscape “looks great,” but he said the chicanes were poorly conceived.
“I lost everything in the headlights and then ran right over it,” he said. “It pulled my bumper off, but I fixed it.”
Balaban noted that an Oklahoma City Public Schools bus routinely has trouble turning north onto Western next to her store because of the chicane. Minutes after she made those comments, the bus crawled through the intersection, barely missing the street’s curb and driving over part of the chicane with its rear tire.
New stoplights, fewer turn options
The entire street project holds a $1.4 million budget and actually runs along Western from N.W. 36th Street to N.W. 63rd Street, Cox said. The bridge over I-44 has been widened, and two new stoplights have been added at Lombardy Road and N.W. 55th Street. The first one is designed with concrete barriers to prevent north-bound Western traffic from turning into that neighborhood.
“I don’t like those median things,” said Deannie Rice, a customer of Freeman’s Liquor Mart on Western. “I guess it keeps us out of the neighborhoods. I don’t know what it’s about.”
Rice said the new traffic flow annoys her because she has to “go around” and can no longer “cut through” on Lombardy.
“I don’t live over here,” she said. “I just come here for my liquor.”
Balaban said she’s been in favor of the Western projects since the beginning but now doesn’t care as much because she’s just ready for them to be completed. She said the project’s development process was frustrating.
“Lots of egos and people with money who think they know what’s best,” she said.