Residents say no to two-way Main Street, advocate for more parking in Sylva

sylvaSylva is likely nearing the end of a months-long debate over a recurring question: is there a better way to do traffic on Main Street?

“Anything new?” asked Mayor Maurice Moody as the town’s second public hearing on the issue this year came to an end. “I think we’ve gotten to the point where we’re rehashing.” 

The hearing drew four speakers, two of them town board candidates in the upcoming elections, and the atmosphere quickly evolved from that of a formal public hearing to informal back-and-forth between board members, towns staff and audience members. 

Throughout the process of commissioning a study, engaging citizens and discussing the issue, the possibility of returning Sylva’s one-way Main Street to a two-way thoroughfare — as it was until the 1950s — has been at the forefront. But the one-way/two-way conundrum didn’t figure as heavily into the discussion Thursday (Sept. 10) as did the issue of parking on Mill Street. The road, known locally as “Back Street,” runs parallel to Main and carries westbound traffic.

“Parking on Mill Street has now become somewhat of a critical issue,” said Charles Pringle, who owns The Winged Lion, a Mill Street cocktail club. “We’ve got 12 spaces now in that first block from Mill and Main Street to the stoplight, compared to almost 40 on Main Street.”

The question, though, is how do you get more parking? Slanting diagonal spaces at a steep enough angle to increase capacity would require a wider road, and the space just isn’t there. The town could block off one lane of traffic down Mill Street to make room, but some wonder whether that would create a traffic bottleneck.  

“I think we do need two lanes on Mill Street,” said Howard Allman, an insurance agent who works downtown and served on the town’s traffic study committee. “There winds up being a lot of traffic. I would like to see more parking for those Mill Street businesses. How we can get it, I don’t know.”

Pringle, meanwhile, suggested that traffic signals be tweaked to improve traffic flow and make a one-lane Mill Street feasible. 

“The (August 2014 downtown) fire commemorated my opening, and traffic, yes, did back up with one lane,” Pringle said. “However, it was due primarily to those stop lights and the timing of those lights. It was not due to the amount of traffic.”

Police Chief Davis Woodard was worried that turning part of Mill Street to one-way traffic would create a “race car” lane of people trying to get ahead of slower cars coming out of the one-lane portion. He suggested that, if the town decided to go with a one-lane section of Mill Street, after the road returned to two-lane travel the left lane should be left-turn-only to prevent the race car syndrome. It might be a good idea, anyway, if the town wanted to look at reducing speeding. Such a system is already in place on Main Street, which designates its left lane left-turn-only. 

The group also talked about Spring Street, a short cross-street between Mill and Main that offers drivers the chance to go “straight” onto Allen Street. That straight turn is really a right turn that goes against one-way traffic and then cuts across to reach Allen. 

“I think we’re probably the only city in the nation that has a turn where you go across two lanes of traffic against traffic to get to Allen Street,” said Commissioner Danny Allen, who is running for mayor. 

Restricting Spring Street to one-way, commissioners speculated, might be a way to gain a few more parking spots. 

As far as the one-way/two-way question on Main, commissioners and citizens seemed to be mostly on the same page.

“While it’s a beautiful idea to think about two-way traffic on Main Street, being able to see the courthouse as you come in from the south end of Main Street, the logistics of it simply don’t work,” Allman said. “In my opinion as a Main Street businessperson, having two-way traffic on Main Street is something I think would be detrimental to business on Main Street.”

Turning traffic two-way, Allman said, would create unbearable gridlock and ultimately cause people to avoid driving downtown. 

“I took one look at it and was like, this is disastrous,” agreed Charlie Schmidt, a candidate for the town board who currently serves on Sylva’s planning board. He added that he often sees people stop to get out and snap a photo of the courthouse, and that, he speculated, is likely better for downtown than offering the view through a windshield. 

“One-way traffic I think really makes our community unique, and I agree people get out of their cars to take pictures,” concurred Greg McPherson, a downtown resident who’s also running for town board. 

The sole dissenting voice in the room on the one-way traffic issue was that of Commissioner Harold Hensley, who’s running for re-election this year. 

“Two-way traffic would work,” he said. “It’s worked before (in Sylva) and it works in a lot of towns. Whether this town wants it or not, that’s a horse of another color.”

“That was a long time ago when there was a lot less traffic,” Allman said of Sylva’s historical experience with a two-way Main Street. 

The town held its first public hearing on the issue in July, to similar results — all of the people who spoke at that hearing were opposed to two-way traffic. 

With a study, results from an online opinion poll and comments from two public hearings in hand, commissioners say they’re ready now to make a decision and put the issue to rest. Their time to do so is limited, however — in November, the mayor’s seat and three board seats are up for election. 

Moody said he heard enough interest in diagonal parking on Mill Street to have a chat with the N.C. Department of Transportation about the issue and possibly get that ball rolling soon.

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