Watts-Hillandale group stands by traffic-calming plan

Aug. 22, 2014 @ 06:26 PM

Leaders of the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association voted late this week to say they still support a controversial traffic-calming plan that would narrow five intersections along West Club Boulevard.

Debbie Hughes, a Virginia Avenue resident and the association’s secretary, emailed word of the decision to fellow residents of the neighborhood early Thursday.

She said it came after “very serious consideration of the many points of view” on the plan, which has drawn opposition from area bicyclists.

City officials propose installing concrete “neck-downs” on Club from Georgia Avenue to Maryland Avenue. The work will narrow the travel lanes at the intersections, in theory prompting motorists to slow down and shortening the crossing distance for pedestrians.

Bicyclists have objected because the additions will force them to weave in and out of the flow of traffic along Club, which they contend would be unsafe.

Durham’s transportation director, Mark Ahrendsen, disagrees and has said officials will take their cues on whether to proceed with construction next year from the Watts-Hillandale association.

But the group’s decision, and Ahrendsen’s stance, have drawn the ire of the project’s critics and vows to take the dispute to the City Council.

“A single neighborhood association should not be allowed sole say in how public money is spent on public roads,” said Adam Haile, one of the most vocal critics of the neck-down proposal.

He contends the project will undermine city policy that favors “complete streets” that provide safe accommodation to motorists, bikers and pedestrians.

The council does in fact have the final say because it has to approve the award of construction contracts for the $350,000 project sometime this winter if work is to begin in the spring.

The project – promised to the neighborhood by city officials in 2001 – would appear to have a head start because two Watts-Hillandale residents serve on the council.

The two – Councilmen Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel – conferred on Friday.

Schewel had previously told Watts-Hillandale residents he’d take his cue from the association, which to date has opposed changing the decision for fear of further delaying the project.

He was cagey about the matter on Friday, declining to say much about his discussion with Moffitt other than to say the two are “talking it over.”

“The neighborhood association is the No. 1 and most important stakeholder,” Schewel said. “But there are other stakeholders as well. Their needs and desires are definitely an important part of the equation.”

The debate so far has played out mostly on neighborhood and cyclist listservs. But the project’s critics are beginning to take their case to the council directly.

One, Virginia Avenue resident Carrie Anne Orlikowski, relayed to members a copy of a letter she wrote Ahrendsen on Friday that called the proposed neck-downs “nothing short of a death trap” for cyclists.

And, like Haile, she objected to the idea of giving the Watts-Hillandale association so large a say in whether the project should go ahead as designed.

That allows “a privileged few, in a relatively high property value and income neighborhood in the city, to make a decision that involves using taxpayer money solely for the benefit of those who live along that roadway, and it is simply unconscionable,” she said.