by Brian Boyhan

It’s a new Department of Transportation out there, everybody seems to agree. As evidence, we offer a seminar held last Wednesday that attracted about fifty residents and elected officials from Sag Harbor and North Haven. These people gathered to hear about nontraditional ways of improving highways and roads around their neighborhoods, inspired by the DOT’s new spirit of working with the public. The DOT was there with open ears and, many seem to believe, an open mind.

The seminar was led by Fred Kent, who has gained some notoriety around these parts for being a forward-thinking planner and an apostle of traffic claming methods: those techniques in road design that slow traffic down and control it by virtue of elements or structures that naturally want to make a driver slow down. Examples would be landscaped medians, raised cross-walks, and serpentine curves in what would normally be straight roads.

The meeting in fact is pursuant to the state’s expressed new willingness to work with public groups, and follows a message from Governeor Pataki’s office urging the regional office of the DOT to be responsive to the communities’ requests. According to plan, the DOT will work with a recently formed bi-village task force to seek creative solutions to problems along the Route 114 corridor, as far south as the Sag Harbor-East Hampton border, and as far north as the blinking light in North Haven.

The work that will ultimately be done on 114 is actually the first time the state will incorporate traffic-calming techniques. It is considered a state-conducted experiment to see if considering other nontraditional methods of road design elsewhere in the state is worthwhile. Mr. Kent, who has helped design roadways and communities around the world, said that he currently has a proposal for Dobbs Ferry, New York, but that the state DOT has not yet seen it.

While Fred Kent and his firm, Project for Public Spaces, has not been hired to actually do any design work for either of the villages, the purpose of his visit here was more to inspire the residents to find their own solutions to problems, and to open their minds to the alternatives that are possible.

As Sag Harbor resident, and member of the joint village task force that has been charged with interfacing with the DOT, Mia Grosjean expressed at the top of Wednesday’s session: “we are trying to reinvent the roads in the community.”

Cynthia Abramson, an associate of Kent’s at PPS, took the assembled through a slide show of some of the projects the firm has completed across the country and around the world. The idea, she said, was not simply to modify roadways, but to create places where the public feels comfortable, and by extension, where the community has a chance to interact.

“Streets have been designed to move traffic, not create community,” she charged. “We haven’t been creating places where people can gather or feel comfortable.”

In order to create these places, she said, designers need to take into consideration the social nature of a site, as well as its access to links to other parts of the community, its specific uses or activities involved with the site, and attempt to create a place that looks comfortable and secure.

In one instance, she illustrated a section of roadway in New Haven, Connecticut, that the firm redesigned. In a before photo, the scene was of a somewhat hostile or forbidding looking place where it would have been treacherous to cross the street. But after the area was redesigned, the sidewalk widened, and the road lanes narrowed, there was new opportunity for people to actually meet on the sidewalk to stop and talk. Getting across the street was much easier, and the two sides of the street were once again allowed to be a part of the same community, observed Ms. Abramson.

Mr. Kent made a similar observation about the stretch of Route 114 as it comes into Sag Harbor. “As you get more traffic, you lose touch with the other side of the road,” he observed. “This is definitely the case with 114. People have moved back away from the street.”

While much of Mr. Kent’s talk had to do with creating new public spaces—or redefining existing ones—the issue, as many in Sag Harbor see it, is slowing traffic. The two issues are not mutually exclusive, as Mr. Kent points out, tiny park or landscaped shoulders, even a park bench and a street light can create a sense of place as well as signal to a driver it is time to slow down.

Many of those at the session took the afternoon to tour Route 114 in a kind of workshop where they were able to identify a dozen or more spots were designing could create both more attractive public spaces and opportunities to slow traffic. Among them the Jewish cemetery near the town line, by the Yardley and Pino Funeral Home and the elementary school—all those areas could use something that would make it easier to cross the street and naturally slow the traffic down. “When the state redid the road, they added five foot shoulders, but there are no sidewalks, there’s no place to cross the road,” observed Mr. Kent.

One of Mr. Kent’s suggestions was to have the children at the elementary school take on their area as a project, especially those who walk to school, identifying the spots that they find most dangerous. “A lot of asphalt is not necessary,” said Mr. Kent, “you can take away about a third of it.”

Saying he thought the town could be made up of a lot of little nodes, he also pointed out the intersection by Madison Market as a spot that deserved some attention as well as by Bulova and Stella Maris. A special sigh was reserved for the intersection of 114 and Main Street at the flag pole. “You have to look at it in a lot of ways,” said Mr. Kent. “Where are the pedestrians going; where could they go now?” He suggested a study using time lapse photography to illustrate pedestrian and vehicular patterns.

He also said Long Wharf was ripe for a change, as many in Sag Harbor have suggested for years, but what? Tossing out a couple of suggestions, Mr. Kent offered a small park at the end, with walkways on either side. The parking spaces could be shortened he said to accommodate the changes without actually losing any spots.

“The wharf is functioning at about 1/100 of its potential,” he said.

But Mr. Kent stressed that it is more important for the community members to decide how they want their streets and public spaces to look and behave, rather than him making suggestions or leading them.

In North Haven, the group identified several spots, and according to task force member Hank deCillia they go beyond the blinking light all the way up to the ferry itself. The group apparently noticed that residents in the community adjacent ot the ferry have a very difficult time with the ferry line so close, plus the fact that there is no special lane for ferry traffic.

North Haven Village Hall has also already become more of a public place and two curves on Ferry Road were identified as potential trouble spots that could use some attention: the curve by the old graveyard and the bend by Peerless Marine. By the old graveyard is particularly dangerous as it is a site for substantial deer crossing, said Mr. deCillia. Plus, he said, the tendency is to drive all over the road, and the signage that exists there is virtually worthless. At the bend by Peerless, the group considered a median or an island, or, said Mr. deCillia, perhaps just a light and a bench.

And finally, the bridge itself. Gayle Pickering, Chairman of the Sag Harbor Planning Board and the bi-village Bridge task Force, who sat in on Wednesday’s meeting, said that she has already considered doing something wit the bridge from her villages’ side. One suggestion, once the new bridge is built, would be to plant a pair of Chinese elms at the foot of the bridge to create something of an entrance. The elms apparently grow to towering proportions and would create a natural arch.

Ms. Pickering agreed that many of Mr. Kent’s suggestions were worth pursuing, including using neck downs at entrances to the village where the road way would become physically narrower as it enters the village. But what involvement Mr. Kent and the Project for Public Spaces has in Sag harbor and North Haven remains to be seen. While all concerned seem to be optimistic, the DOT still has the ball. North Haven Trustee Fred Stelle is not convinced that PPS needs to play a significant role beyond the inspiration it has offered thus far. He notes that the State DOT has hired the RBA Group to act as their engineering and design consultants, possibly the first time the state has consciously brought in a firm that has experience with traffic calming techniques.

“I’m willing to give them a chance,” said Mr. Stelle, who sits on the bi-village Route 114 Task Force. “If we’re not happy, then maybe we can bring someone like Fred Kent in to make a shadow document [of the state's proposal.]”

The task force is expected to meet later this month.