Residents hear about MLK corridor improvements

Glenn Walters with the Design Workshop shows a conceptual rendering of a park in front of Union Station.

Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Winston-Salem will get new landscaping, fencing, benches, lighting and decorative “story panels” when work begins on improvements sometime later this year.

The Winston-Salem Transportation Department, the Creative Corridors Coalition and Design Workshop hosted a final public input meeting for the project, which will enhance a roadway whose status as a gateway to downtown is expected to take on additional importance with the temporary closure of Business 40 for repairs in 2018. The meeting was held at Mount Zion Baptist Church on Wednesday evening.

“When we first had community meetings the message that we heard the loudest was, ‘We want safe crosswalks, we want the sidewalks to work well, we like the fencing, we like the planting, we like the interchanges, we like the monuments,'” said Glenn Walters, a landscape architect with Design Workshop, based in Asheville. “We stuck with the idea that some of these fundamental things that would make the corridor more attractive, work better, be safer were the highest priority items. And then the parks sifted down to the bottom after that.”

The improvements to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive from Business 40 to US Highway 52 are part of the larger Creative Corridors project to enhance the aesthetic appearance and even create an iconic impression of major corridors and bridges surrounding downtown. The approximate cost of the project is $3 million, and Winston-Salem Transportation Department Planning and Development Coordinator Greg Errett said the federal government has committed $2.5 million. The city and the Creative Corridors Coalition, a nonprofit that relies on private community funding, will be responsible for the remainder of the project cost.

“It’s a tough space because the responsibility of that road is to get a lot of cars from here to there, so what we have to really work hard with is, how do we get people across it, how do we get people to want to walk along it within the confined space that we have,” Walters said. “The above-ground power poles are something that we looked at long and hard, and that’s just a part of the landscape out there. It creates a lot of visual clutter, but the reality is that putting all of that underground is just really significant.”

The major landmark on Martin Luther King Drive is Winston-Salem State University. The street intersects Business 40 just north of the university. The street intersects 3rd, 4th and 5th streets, which historically connected the African-American community to downtown when Reynolds Tobacco Co. was a major employer. A commemorative marker celebrates the Winston-Salem chapter of the Black Panther Party at the intersection of 5th Street. Martin Luther King Drive passes a significant commercial hub at New Walkertown Road anchored by a CVS drug store and Food Lion grocery store, and the Sunrise Towers public housing community. The Career Center, part of Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and the Forsyth County Health Department are also part of the corridor.

Walters said the design calls for plantings in the median and the space between the sidewalk and the street to beautify the roadway. The work will include replacing soil and selecting plants that are hardy enough to withstand inhospitable conditions. Walters showed a rendering depicting low fencing next to the roadway, which he said will encourage pedestrians to cross the street at identified crosswalks.

The presentation included renderings of a small park within a circular drive in front of Union Station, which the city recently acquired through eminent domain, and a so-called linear park on a strip of land near 3rd, 4th and 5th streets that is privately owned at this time. The parks would feature tree canopies and benches offering places for rest and reflection. Walters acknowledge that the parks are in the conceptual stage and would require funding by the city at a future time.

Milton Rhodes, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, said he has been working with the Centennial Commission, which is looking for a location for “a major piece of public art,” and has considered four locations, including the Career Center, the intersection of New Walkertown Road near CVS, a location between Sunrise Towers and the Career Center and Union Station, which he said “could really be a symbol of the city when the light rail comes in and connects with Raleigh.”

Walters said a public art installation could help reinforce recent investment at CVS and would also compliment Union Station. Joycelyn Johnson, community engagement co-chair for the Creative Corridors Coalition and former East Ward representative on city council, expressed support for placing the public art piece in front of the CVS store.

Walters said the budget includes funding for decorative features, including a “big light piece” with lettering to identify the East Winston neighborhood and banners tied to the history of the street. He said people in previous public input meetings have suggested that the banners honor the street’s namesake.

Errett said after the meeting that a committee has not been established to determine the precise content and design of the banners.

Naomi Folami Randolph, interim executive director of Neighbors for Better Neighborhoods, asked Walters if there might be an opportunity for residents of the neighborhood to benefit from economic development through access to contracting. Walters did not directly answer the question, but said the project would be put out to bid by the city, which is subject to certain goals on participation by minority- and women-owned enterprises. He added that the historic and artistic components might provide some opportunities.

Lawn care, retouching the paint on wrought-iron fencing and designing commemorative banners are all endeavors that could provide meaningful economic opportunities to community members, Randolph said after the meeting.

“What if the community hosted a competition to win that?” she asked. “How exciting would that be? You could have a community review of all the entries. Imagine the mother with the stroller who gets to see one of her children recognized through that.”

Rhodes said the diversion of traffic from Business 40 to Martin Luther King Jr. Drive will provide economic development opportunities.

“There’s job opportunities along MLK,” he said. “It may happen in your lifetime. 2018 is what we were told today is when Business 40 will be closed. So all those properties along MLK from 40 to 52 are going to be up for commercial development.”

An unidentified man said 3rd, 4th and 5th streets between Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and US Highway 52 heading towards downtown are dark at night, and they need to be illuminated to prevent pedestrians from being struck by cars and to allow cars to travel safely.

Walters said that section is not part of the corridor improvement project. Errett noted that his boss, Transportation Director Toneq’ McCullough, was taking notes on the man’s comments and the department would address any deficiencies in street lighting brought to their attention.

The three streets will also connect the corridor to the Piedmont Triad Research Park, which is under construction at the eastern fringe of downtown.

“I think the Creative Corridors plan as an entrance from the east is part of the plan to make all of that section between Martin Luther King and the research park be a bridge between the research park and the African-American community and the churches and downtown and so forth,” Rhodes said. “I think trying to figure out the structures along Martin Luther King that are going to be there for four or five years to think through all this and advise the city government and others on how this whole project develops is really key going forward. And I think people here tonight should form a group of some sort to shepherd this through the next four or five years.”

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