03/11/12 — City Council approves Streetscape project

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City Council approves Streetscape project

By Ty Johnson
Published in News on March 11, 2012 1:50 AM

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Julie Thompson, right, and Andrew Jernigan applaud after the Goldsboro City Council voted to approve the first stage of the Streetscape project on Friday. Ms. Thompson, executive director of the Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp., and others hope the project will help revitalize downtown.

Mayor Al King looked out into the Goldsboro City Council chambers with an unapologetic smile Friday afternoon in the wake of the council's Center Street Streetscape vote.

After months of vitriol being poured upon him from residents gathered there, nearly all of the 70 people lining the pews were standing and applauding the council's decision to move forward with the city's downtown revitalization project.

The project calls for renovation of the 200 north block of Center Street by widening the sidewalks and median and creating a path between the roads as well as planting new trees.

The 4-3 vote awarded a bid for the first phase of the Center Street renovations to Daniels and Daniels Construction Co. in the amount of $1.3 million.

King was swarmed by well-wishers following the meeting, which was a continuation of the council's regular meeting that began March 5.

He thanked them in droves for showing up, barely holding his composure while he explained the difference between previous meetings -- which featured older opponents to the plans insulting the council's decision-making -- and that one where supporters gave a standing ovation to what he heralded as the most important decision the city has made since he became mayor.

"It's indescribable," he said of the change in climate from previous months. "There were people coming to the office, threatening me -- saying 'I'm not gonna vote for you.' But I'm not here for votes. While I'm here, I'm gonna do something.

"This, to me, is the most significant vote made by this council since I've been here."

But King said calls for changes to the plans had not fallen on deaf ears. The council will still be open to changes as they prove necessary, he assured.

"It won't be overnight," King said. "It will be open to tweak and adjust."

The plans for the Streetscape have already been adjusted since Allison Platt first began work on the downtown master plan in 2006. After five public forums and several stakeholder meetings, the plan -- which included the schematics for the Center Street renovations -- was approved by council in August 2007.

A year and a half ago, when the city determined it may be able to use street bond money to perform the changes, those schematics became the subject of further public meetings. Four more meetings resulted in three new design versions, Downtown Goldsboro Development Corp. Director Julie Thompson said.

"For the most part, we came up with a really good compromise," she said.

The changes saw the plan's 100 percent transition to parallel parking to a hybrid parking system, combining angled parking with parallel parking on the blocks featuring many businesses and also the preservation of much of the street's on-street parking.

When the city first received bids on the project last summer, the council decided to alter the project again to reduce the price for the work. Ms. Thompson said the changes were mostly minor and included the easement of subcontractor policies, but it ultimately led to a reduction in cost from more than $1.7 million to the $1.3 million bid awarded Friday.

The months leading up to the vote, however, saw more and more citizens speak out against the project with specific focus on the removal of the holly trees that line the street.

Public comment periods were filled with accusations that the city was ignoring its constituents by removing the trees, which were planted in the 1960s along the Center Street median. The project calls for the removal of those trees before planting more, shade-giving trees along a walkway down the middle of the median.

Ms. Thompson said removing the aging trees was a part of the plans because they block the visibility of the street's businesses.

"They are a visual barrier," she said, adding that many who don't want them removed see them only when they are lit up for the holidays. "Right now they're only really attractive one month out of the year and then only at night. They're not the right size for the space.

"As much as I understand the sentimental place that they have held, they're such a small factor in the overall vision and function of downtown."

Ms. Thompson also said she has spoken with landscapers about relocating some of the healthiest holly trees to other areas around the area.

"I understand that people are sad to see them go but you have to look at the bigger picture and the bigger picture is going to serve downtown more than the holly trees," she said, adding that the investment had begun to be viewed as strictly a downtown project. "Some think this is just a downtown project. I'm not doing this just for downtown. It will give us a better climate for business throughout the city."

And as for businesses downtown, she said the bulk of concerns did not lie with the project, but with the impact of construction on accessibility and, in turn, profits.

"I feel like I can speak on behalf of the council and the city that we're going to do everything we can to minimize that," she said, saying the phases of construction and possible implementation of off-street parking would likely ease the struggles for businesses.

Delays in the decision-making process will mean further delays in the contracts, so work isn't expect to begin on the project for more than a month. Beyond that, however, the city has made plans to continue the project southward.

Finance Director Kaye Scott presented plans to council in February which showed the implementation of a loan beginning in fiscal year 2013-14 for the next two blocks of Center Street -- estimated to cost about $2 million each -- would only have a significant impact on the city's debt service for one year before it began shrinking back to its current level.

Still, she said the longevity of the project would have lasting effects on the city.

"More than any project we've been working toward this is one that will functionally and aesthetically change downtown," Ms. Thompson said. "Downtown needs to be an experience where people can enjoy themselves and be comfortable. That is exactly what the project is going to do for our downtown. It will make it a better place to shop, live, work and play."