In all of Raleigh, there are few half-miles in more obvious need of a sidewalk than the beaten dirt path that traces the curb along Fallon Park, a tiny strip of green nestled steps away from Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and a greenway. Alongside the park runs Oxford Road, which on any given morning is bustling with activity—not just cars whizzing by, but also joggers trotting by dog walkers, and school children scampering by stroller-hauling mothers.
Most everyone is in the street. They don’t have much choice.
“There are constantly people on that road,” says Brent McConkey, who runs along that stretch in the morning. “It’s not always the safest.”
Five years ago, a resident of this tony community sought to change that, petitioning the city to build a sidewalk along the park. Fifteen of the twenty-two property owners along Oxford Road who responded to a survey told the city they wanted a sidewalk, too. City planners thought it was a good idea as well; this, after all, is the kind of inside-the-beltline neighborhood where the city’s comprehensive plan calls for more pedestrian and bicycle connectivity, especially near parks and greenways.
The project got a green light, and over the next four years, the staff developed the sidewalk, going through multiple design iterations, compromising with neighbors about this or that detail, and spending more than $20,000 on a consultant to help mitigate environmental impacts, as the sidewalk would run near a small creek.
After all that, it took the Raleigh City Council only fifteen minutes last Tuesday to kill the project.
On the surface, the near-unanimous vote—with only council member Nicole Stewart dissenting—against the $523,000 sidewalk may not seem that important. But the decision, spearheaded by council member Stef Mendell, speaks to a larger issue: the council’s willingness to prioritize the needs of a few vocal residents over its own long-term vision. And that could have dramatic implications for how the city handles tricky growth decisions in the future.
That, after all, is exactly what happened here: A handful of residents complained, and the city council reversed course, casting aside its own policies, years of staff work, and, quite possibly, the sentiments of the majority of the neighborhood.
Among those residents opposing the sidewalk was Rachael Wooten, who attended the city council meeting with a handmade sign reading, “No sidewalk.” As with others in the neighborhood, Wooten worried the sidewalk would damage the roots of the old, beautiful trees lining the park. And, she says, narrowing the road and building the sidewalk on the existing street—as the city’s latest design calls for—could cause problems for residents who park on the street.
Walking through the park Friday afternoon, Wooten paused on a pedestrian bridge as children waded through the creek below. “Those of us who love this park, we love it as a natural oasis,” Wooten said. “Really, we would just like to leave it as a natural woodland.”
The thing is, according to the city’s planners, none of these concerns were real. They could build the sidewalk within the existing roadway, which wouldn’t compromise the trees. The city also offered to hire an arborist to minimize tree impact and a separate consultant to mitigate effects to the nearby creek, which has already cost $21,000. And while narrowing the road would affect street parking, most residents have driveways—and the narrower road would help calm traffic, says city engineer Brennon Fuqua. Construction could have started later this year.
The city’s 2030 Comprehensive Plan lays out fourteen policies prioritizing the construction and updating of sidewalks throughout the city, with an overall goal of increasing pedestrian safety and access, encouraging alternative transportation, and connecting sidewalks to schools, greenways, parks, libraries, and transit stations.
Since 2013, the city has spent more than $7 million on sidewalks. Thirty-two sidewalk projects are currently being designed or constructed, six of which started from resident petitions. Most of these projects go off without a hitch, but about a half-dozen have been canceled due to neighborhood opposition in the two decades transportation planning manager Eric Lamb has worked for the city.
Sometimes, Lamb says, a new sidewalk represents “a disruption of the status quo.”
For Wooten, the status quo is just fine in Fallon Park. She’s lived in the neighborhood since 1976 and recalls hauling her kids in a stroller down Oxford Road with no problem—no sidewalk necessary. Fixing this non-problem could hurt a park that is already just a sliver of green in a sea of subdivisions, she argues.
City staffers went through several design iterations to appease the sidewalk’s opponents, but they weren’t satisfied. They took their concerns to Mendell, whose district includes their neighborhood, and urged her to stop the project. She took up their case.
But McConkey says he and other residents didn’t get the chance to voice their opinion—that the sidewalk is a no-brainer given the heavy pedestrian traffic, the school, and the greenway—because they didn’t know it was endangered. He thought the sidewalk was a done deal after the 2014 petition passed overwhelmingly. So he didn’t go to any public meetings, nor did he email the council.
“Council member Mendell was hearing from a very small subset of folks opposed to the project,” he says. “She wasn’t hearing from people like me that were in support because we didn’t know she needed to be hearing from us, frankly. She made the motion based on that very vocal minority.”
Indeed, the council is particularly receptive to vocal minorities, especially those concerned about issues related to density and affordability. The onerous regulations the council has proposed for accessory dwelling units and Airbnb—issues over which the council has wrung its hands for years, as elements of new and old Raleigh collided—reflect this tendency as well. In both cases, as with the Fallon Park sidewalk, the council has listened to outspoken residents fearful of change, not those eager to adopt and accommodate innovations that have proliferated in cities across the country.
In local politics, as in life, squeaky wheels get grease. And no matter the issue, those who vehemently oppose an initiative are more likely to flood council members’ inboxes and phone lines than its supporters. So it’s unsurprising that Mendell said last week that, while she’d been inundated with emails from sidewalk opponents, no one had reached out to her in support of the project.
“Let’s spend the money where it will be appreciated and not impose a sidewalk where it’s not wanted,” she said at the meeting. (The survey showing that residents wanted the sidewalk was a few years old, she pointed out, and there’s been turnover in the neighborhood.)
Stewart disagreed, saying she’d spoken to residents who, in fact, wanted the sidewalk. But in the end, she cast the lone vote against canceling the project. While voting with the majority, Mayor Nancy McFarlane said she felt badly about the amount of work staffers had put into the project.
“It’s tough when we spend that much time,” Lamb says. “If we’re going to kill a project, we’d rather know in the beginning and not invest city resources, the time of staff, the money of hiring a consultant to do the work, the time we spend going out into the community, the time the community takes to spend with the project.”
Susan Hatchell, who chairs the city’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Commission, lives in the neighborhood and was stunned by the council’s decision.
“It’s disappointing news to me because I think it would be a good community project,” Hatchell says. “The sidewalk would provide a lot of safety and an opportunity for wellness and not being in the street, and it’s excellent for traffic-calming the road.”
McConkey hopes the council reconsiders.
“Why would someone be opposed to a sidewalk in 2019? The city’s comprehensive plan talks about how we’re trying to promote active, healthy, vibrant neighborhoods,” he says. “This sidewalk would do that, and yet we’re going to reject it. It seems antithetical to the city’s values in promoting healthy neighborhoods.”
Contact staff writer Leigh Tauss by phone at 919-832-8774, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @leightauss.
Five years ago a resident of the neighborhood (who no longer lives there) requested a sidewalk on Oxford. From what I understand, at the time most people thought it was a good idea. However, as often happens, what started as a great idea had some issues.
When it came down to actually building the sidewalk, it was apparent that there would be impacts on the trees in the park. Some of the trees are quite old and a sidewalk over the roots would harm the trees.
The work around was to move the sidewalk away from the trees by building the sidewalk in the street rather than behind the curb on top of the tree roots. Doing so would have narrowed the street. When no workable solution to keep from narrowing the street and to protect the trees was apparent, most of the residents on Oxford decided against the sidewalk.
Now, why did it take five years? Because there are lots of requests for sidewalks. We probably have a ten year backlog of requests for sidewalks. And the projects are prioritized according to a set of criteria. Just because your request came in first, doesn’t mean it will be addressed first. Several factors come into play.
As for the money that the Transportation Department spent on this project, I do think that is regrettable and an indication that we need some improvements in the process used. I would like to learn more about why it cost so much to design a sidewalk that sits on top of an existing road right of way. I hope we can get some better insights about why so much money was spent.
In my opinion Stef has the highest integrity and works hard to do the right thing. When the residents of Oxford made it clear that they no longer wanted the sidewalk, it was reasonable to use those funds for one of the many other requests that are waiting in the queue.
I think it is regrettable that the Indy reporter didn’t point these factors out. The story sounds far more sensational that it really is.
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