BENTONVILLE -- Thaden students have a plan they think will improve, at least temporarily, an intersection near their downtown school.
The city's Traffic Signage and Safety Committee is scheduled to discuss the project at a meeting today.
The students, along with teachers and others from the school, met with committee members and other city officials at South Main and Southwest Eighth streets on Jan. 23 to see the intersection in real time and to hear an update from the students.
The project emerged from an Urban Studies class Sam Slaton teaches. It is for ninth- through 12th-grade students.
The Southwest Eighth and Main streets intersection was one location that stood out for a student-led intervention. It marks the northwest corner of campus and separates the school from Heroes Coffee and Crepes Paulette, two popular after-school destinations, Slaton said.
The intersection with a four-way stop lacks pedestrian infrastructure and signage, creating a dangerous environment, he said.
Miguel Abellan, a Thaden student, said the project is about pedestrian infrastructure, and all class members have a role in the project.
"This is a very accessible school through bikes and walking, so a lot of them have to use this intersection," he said. "There are no crosswalks and a lot of cars. They do like a rolling stop. They kind of slow down then keep going. There have been many times where people almost got hit by a car."
Students began to develop a plan to temporarily improve the intersection for people who walk and bike until the intersection is permanently reconstructed as part of the Eighth Street widening, Slaton said.
The $27.8 million Eighth Street project will be done in seven phases from the intersection of Southwest I Street to its intersection with Southeast J Street -- a span of about 1.4 miles, said Dennis Birge, city transportation director.
Southeast J Street is one of the boundaries of the new Walmart home office campus that is under construction. Walmart will build the section on Eighth Street that will run through its headquarters, Birge said.
Work is now being done on Eighth Street from Walton Boulevard to Southwest A Street.
The intersection needs improvements for all modes of mobility, Birge said.
"We have it under contract currently through our Eighth Street project to make those improvements," he said. "Once the project is completed, there will be a signal installed with pedestrian and bicycle crossing included."
But the students would like temporary improvements now, since the project is not scheduled for completion until late 2024, he said.
A survey by the class in which 138 people participated found 97% of Thaden faculty, staff and students cross the intersection with some degree of frequency. Of that 97%, 64% cross on foot. Over 51% of respondents rated the intersection "very unsafe" or "unsafe," Slaton said.
With the safety concerns brought forward by the students, the committee feels temporary striping for crosswalks and stop bars are needed now, Birge said.
Students developed a three-phase plan to add crosswalks and artwork to the intersection, to use upcycled tire planters to delineate Southwest Eighth Street from the parking lots for Heroes Coffee and Crepes Paulette and to build a social space for teenagers in the underutilized alley between the restaurant and cafe, Slaton said.
In November, students presented their work at the Urban Land Institute's Place Summit in downtown Bentonville, which brought together over 200 elected officials, architects, engineers, city planners and community organizers from around the country to discuss best practices for land use and community development.
Students spent December applying the feedback from the meeting to prepare to present to the Traffic Signage and Safety Committee in January. At that Jan. 9 meeting, the committee voiced concerns regarding compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices guidelines and whether artwork in the intersection would create a more dangerous environment for road users, Slaton said.
"I felt like the committee was very favorable of increasing safety at this intersection by allowing the addition of signage, stop bars and crosswalk striping," Birge said.
Students then got to work researching the committee's concerns. They learned the ADA addresses feasibility as a determining factor in compliance. Because this is a temporary project, it can be argued that installing receiving ramps/landings is justifiably infeasible, Slaton said.
By wading through the 800-plus-page Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, students also discovered the intersection is already significantly out of compliance. The manual says "crosswalks should be marked at all intersections on established routes to a school where there is substantial conflict between motorists, bicyclists and student movements; where students are encouraged to cross between intersections; where students would not otherwise recognize the proper place to cross; or where motorists or bicyclists might not expect students to cross."
Students found a 2022 study from Bloomberg Philanthropies that says art makes streets safer by increasing the visibility of pedestrian spaces and slowing drivers down.
Students came prepared at the on-site meeting Jan. 23. They answered questions and provided handouts. One student used a handheld counter to show the number of vehicles that came to a rolling stop at the intersection that was crowded with adults -- including Police Chief Ray Shastid -- and students.
Students are working with NWA Trailblazers to develop technical drawings for the crosswalks and are investigating the process to secure interim Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices approval for the intersection artwork, Slaton said.
Students hope to secure official approval for their plans from the Traffic Signage and Safety Committee meeting, Slaton said.
Birge said the committee will deal with adding art painting to the pavement at today's meeting.
Letters of support for the intersection projects have come from Urban Land Institute of Northwest Arkansas, the Trailblazers, the Creative Arkansas Community Hub and Exchange and People for Bikes.
"We hope we can get it accomplished," Abellan said, standing at the intersection on Jan. 23. "This is why there are so many people out here. There are a lot of people here from the city, and they're all backing us, but they just want to make sure we have everything in place before we can get it passed."
About Thaden School
The Bentonville school is named in honor of Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden. Born and raised in Bentonville, she was one of the greatest aviators of her time. Her childhood home, the McPhetridge House, which originally stood on West Central Avenue downtown, was saved from demolition in 2017 and now serves as the school’s Office of Admissions. The 30-acre campus also has a rich history. It served as the home of the Benton County Fair for nearly 80 years and, prior to that, was the site of other educational institutions, including Bentonville High School when Louise McPhetridge was a student there in the early 1920s. Thaden School opened in 2017.
Source: Thaden School