Those of us who grew up in comparatively topographically unvaried regions are probably a bit more sensitive to changes in grade than those who hail from the hills. I grew up in Indianapolis, a city generally perceived as fairly flat. The fact that it has relatively few vantage points by which one can survey the land below, however, does not mean that it has zero vantage points: most people who grew up in Indy know that Crown Point Cemetery is the highest point in the city, with James Whitcomb Riley’s gravesite offering a charming view of the the city’s skyline in the distance, allowing with a considerable expanse of that mostly (but not completely) flat terrain. Less known is Highland Park in the Holy Cross neighborhood, just a mile east of downtown. Though gentler and thus less dramatic, it still offers views which are no doubt expediting the gentrification of the once-downtrodden area.
But it’s still Indy, and to someone from San Francisco or Pittsburgh or Cincinnati (the latter just barely 100 miles away from Indy and yet in the top quartile of hilly American cities), these vistas don’t amount to much. I’ve lived in various locations across the eastern half of the US, and incidentally, these include at least three cities even flatter than Indianapolis. The first, Chicago, is a titan of topographic tedium. Even from my Indy perspective, moving there and learning what they call a “ridge” (as demarcated by “Ridge Avenue”) wouldn’t pass muster. The ridge barely goes up to my shoulder. Chicago has magnificent vantage points from the promontories that punctuate its Lake Michigan shoreline, but I’m not aware of vistas that owe their luster to grade change. Then there’s New Orleans, which also ostensibly has ridges criss-crossing through this basin-shaped city, created through the depositing of silt from previous paths of the Mississippi River. But none of them are really discernible to the naked eye until a certain hurricane sweeps in, builds pressure on the levees and flood walls, they break, the storm surge inundates the city, and everyone thus learns which portions are actually above sea level. (But at that point, boy do they know where the ridges are.) And, for those not lucky enough to have experienced the joys of Hurricane Katrina, one of the few true vantage points in the Crescent City is Monkey Hill, a mound of approximately 30 feet nestled within the city’s Audubon Zoo, which the Civil Works Administration created in the early days of the Great Depression (before the WPA existed) to give New Orleans’ young people the experience of an actual hill. And there’s Detroit: while the suburbs offer some topographic interest, the city itself has only one west-side neighborhood, Brightmoor, which offers some mild slopes. The highest point is Gorham Playground in the far northwest corner of the city, but the grade change is so slight that it is undetectable; in most empirical respects, Motor City is pancake flat.
Naturally, not one of these above cities prepared me for a move to the Lehigh Valley, in far eastern Pennsylvania north of Philadelphia.
Like most of the Keystone State, the three cities of Allentown, Bethlehem, and Easton have considerable topographic variety, which provide for numerous remarkable vantage points: the Lehigh River flows through all three cities and forms the obvious basis for the valley upon which the bluffs project. With dense old colonial settlements like Easton perched over both the Lehigh and the mighty Delaware rivers, the opportunities for postcard-perfect vignettes are abundant, even when (as is often the case in Bethlehem) they include terrifying blast furnaces in the foreground.
But, as usual, I prefer to focus on the more banal. Like the parking lot of a strip mall on the outskirts of Bethlehem, seen in the Google Street View. It’s not easy to tell from a fish-eye camera technique on display in that hyperlink, but if it appears that the Bethlehem Square Shopping Center might rest on a slope, that’s because it does.
While this probably isn’t a huge problem for most of the tenants at Bethlehem Square, its a minor mishap for an automobile-oriented supermarket to occupy space on a sloped parking lot. The reasons should be obvious. But if they aren’t, suffice it to say that a person with a cart of groceries will have to engage various laws of physics to keep his or her purchases close at hand. In the short time between letting go of the cart and pulling the first of a series of bags into the car’s trunk, the cart rolls right away, careening down the parking lot, potentially ready to slam into another parked car. A customer either has to position the cart so that the physicality of the car impedes it from rolling down the hill—a position in defiance of the parking lot’s stripes—or to brace one’s self against the cart. It’s a minor but ridiculous situation that deterred me from shopping here in the long run. (And yes, there’s a Home Depot in Bethlehem Square as well; I’m sure people using their cumbersome carts face many of the same hurdles.) The developer of Bethlehem Square might have been able to avoid the situation by striping the parking spaces differently, so that they are more parallel to the slope, as opposed to perpendicular. It would have been an economical solution, but it still may not have worked; after all, positioning the car parallel to the slope in the current arrangement doesn’t keep it from rolling. Besides, the slope may not be evenly distributed or uniformly angled across the expanse of asphalt. The more practical solution, of course, would have been simply to grade the entire site far more effectively. It’s a situation that commercial developers in Indianapolis, New Orleans, Chicago, or Detroit rarely face.
But the clearing and grading of land prior to site development are part of the basic stipulations to almost all Subdivision and Land Development Ordinances (SALDOs, as they call them in Pennsylvania). And it’s a practice that developers and civil engineers must confront across the rolling and rugged terrain of the East Coast. The developers at the Alexandria Commons shopping center in the namesake city in Virginia faced a grade change similar to those at Bethlehem Square. But they approached the problem differently.
To be fair, the topography at the Alexandria Commons property isn’t quite the same as at Bethlehem Square: in this Virginia strip mall, the building itself stretches across the slope, so the western end of the row of shops is higher grade than the eastern end, rather the rather than the whole structure sitting perched at the property’s highest elevation. But isn’t that at least in part the justification for civil engineering—that no two pieces of land need improving in the exact same fashion?
Here’s the strategy the development team deployed at Alexandria Commons, a community-sized strip mall with multiple points of access from a single arterial (Duke Street—Virginia State Road 236). Looking out to the west—
—it seems unremarkable. A strip mall with a second floor for more conventional office-type uses, as one can expect in a region where land values are high. But pivot slightly and look straight ahead:
It’s not entirely clear, but, behind all the landscaping, the parking lot on the right side of the photo is at a good ten or fifteen feet higher elevation than the parking on the left. But it’s all part of one structure. Here’s a clearer view:
The two parking lots require a flight of stairs for pedestrians to manage the hill. And the building itself straddles this slope, so storefronts that had at-grade access from the parking lot with higher elevation become second-story tenants on the portion of the building that fronts the lower parking lot. Here’s a view of a restaurant that offers balcony-style seating when peering over the lower, eastern parking lot:
But the view to the west? I’ve already shown it—just a one-level strip mall (except for those second-floor offices in the distance).
It’s an unusual arrangement, but a more distant view puts it all into perspective.
The developer of Alexandria Commons managed the most significant grade change not by leveling half the hill, or by filling the other half, but by doing essentially nothing. The hill remains intact. It was impractical to alter the land so much at this point to create a perfectly level expanse of parking lot across the entire large strip mall. So the civil engineers simply reconciled themselves to a design in which the slope cuts a swathe across the impervious surface, filling it instead with grass and trees. It makes the entire lot more aesthetic as a result, and, for those who seek to get from high to low, there’s obviously still a flight of stairs.
In short, the developer and civil engineers found a cost-effective solution that allows them the full-scale strip mall, curtails only about twenty or so parking spaces, saves the cost for grading a single, uninterrupted parking lot, and allows for a nice looking green space right in the middle of the whole thing. It’s a smart move in almost all respects. Here’s another view from the lower elevation, eastern parking lot, which reveals the one potential deficiency that I can see: if there’s any means of ascending the hill for individuals in wheelchairs, it sure isn’t obvious. Presumably there’s an elevator tucked away in one of the corners of the strip mall. Otherwise, a person in a wheelchair may have to go all the way toward Duke Street, where the grade change is gentle enough not to warrant stairs, and it may be of a sufficiently low grade change to meet ADA standards—that is, an individual in a wheelchair can safely and comfortably ascend or descend.
Regardless of the gentler grade near Duke Street, the configuration does not lend itself well for people navigating this shopping center who seek to avoid stairs. Plenty of people will just get back in their car to avoid those stairs. As far as strip malls go, Alexandria Commons has an inordinate number of them. And, judging from the deficiencies (mild though they may be), it’s likely that the local land development ordinance offers basic stipulations for developing commercial properties on slopes. But it doesn’t account for abundant, clearly defined alternatives to stairs. It’s not that the developer deliberately avoided these provisions; there’s simply no other development quite like this one, and the existing legal fishnet allowed a few walleyes to pass right through. Not exactly a crisis, but a telling moment in a reasonably hilly city that also has its share of auto-oriented shopping districts, where the slopes do still require unusual safety measures.
My one gripe on how Alexandria Commons handled the grade change is a minor one. It’s a good looking development, and, most importantly of all, when you shop at the grocery store, your cart doesn’t fly away as soon as you let it go. Then again, maybe the Giant Supermarket is just positioned at the right portion of the development, and the parking lot near the Giant is sufficiently level to stop runaway carts. After all, here’s a photo I snapped at a distant corner of Alexandria Commons that doesn’t exactly suggest an even keel.
Better yank up that parking brake on your car.