South Main Street is a mess.
That’s the message from a consultant hired by the town of Waynesville to develop a revitalization plan for the struggling artery.
The consultant spent six months studying South Main and developing a master street plan. The challenges are great, based on the less-than-flattering language that peppers his report: deteriorated condition; not economically healthy; dilapidated structures; no distinct image; scrubby patches of overgrown and unattractive weeds; seldom pedestrian traffic; high vacancy rate.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to deliver such blunt news, Waynesville Town Planner Paul Benson said. Locals come to accept the status quo, and may not realize how bad it actually looks. Besides, the slow decline of South Main happened over decades, making the changes less noticeable until it became a blight on the town.
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Many South Main property owners salivated over the coming of Super Walmart and Best Buy, putting their lots and businesses on the market before the big-box development had even broken ground. Four years later, they are still waiting for the land rush, wondering why Applebee’s hasn’t come knocking yet.
The answer is because South Main Street simply doesn’t look good, according to Rodney Porter, the corridor consultant who works for LaQuatra Bonci in Asheville.
“One of the challenges to this corridor is how do we make the road itself more accessible and pedestrian friendly. The other is how do we address the economic downturn of this corridor,” Porter said.
Luckily, the solution happens to be one and the same, he said.
“If you can design a road that is pedestrian friendly you can generate a more successful corridor,” Porter said. “A simple change of image will provide a new address for economic investment.”
The same elements that would make the road attractive to pedestrians — sidewalks, curbs, street trees, crosswalks, benches, a landscape median — will make it attract to commercial development, Porter contends.
“Pedestrian traffic is a critical ingredient to revitalizing a corridor,” Porter said. “It is critical to have this corridor be inviting and provide a sense of safety and welcome.”
Failure to do so could forever sentence South Main to its destitute status, according to Porter’s assessment. Traffic on South Main Street has actually declined over the past three years, according to traffic counts taken by the DOT shortly after Super Walmart opened and new traffic counts taken by Porter’s team.
“More people are actually going around South Main Street to get to Walmart. They are just hopping off the exit,” Porter said.
They aren’t being drawn to South Main, and instead opt to hop on and off the adjacent highway to get to Walmart. Until South Main’s appearance improves and lures more traffic, new businesses won’t be motivated to follow suit, Porter said.
“Until you set the stage with a new road coming in, there is no incentives for redevelopment along that road,” Porter said.
Benson agrees with the premise: make the street attractive and inviting, people and businesses will follow.
“It needs to be a more attractive environment,” Benson said. “That will be a key to promote retail activity.”
It will take more than throwing in a row of trees along the road and putting in sidewalks, however.
The road itself is missing many of the bare essentials. It lacks curbs, with parking lot after parking lot morphing into the road. The net result: a giant plain of asphalt.
Porter said South Main’s character is defined by the “overwhelming presence of parking lots.”
In the quest to bring renewed life to South Main, the middle-class neighborhoods of Hazelwood will be critical, according to Porter.
“The lack of users on South Main Street has in part contributed to the dereliction of the corridor,” Porter said. “The adjacent residential population is no longer devoted to the commerce on South Main Street.”
Benson agreed on this point as well.
“The idea is to connect with the neighborhoods, to make it easy for those folks to walk or ride their bike or drive to the corridor. A lot of it is based on a complete street concept that all users should feel comfortable on the corridor, not just the cars and trucks,” Benson said.
Porter was hired by the town to develop a proposed plan for South Main Street as a community-driven alternative to another plan devised by the N.C. Department of Transportation.
The DOT plan was less nuanced and more utilitarian. It calls for a wider road with fewer pedestrian features — concrete rather than planted medians, no dedicated bike lanes, narrower sidewalks and more lanes.
The town felt it wasn’t in keeping with its vision for South Main, and that’s largely what prompted the town to undertake an independent master plan.
“This is definitely a more tailored approach than the DOT study,” Benson said.
The town’s independent feasibility study cost $55,000, with 80 percent of the cost paid for with a federal planning grant.
Two community workshops were held to engage the public in creating the plan. Property owners, businessmen, as well as average residents, turned out to voice their vision for the corridor.
The town is now hoping the public will voice its opinions again now that a draft plan is on the table. A meeting to solicit input will be at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the new Waynesville town hall building.
Porter said “community consensus” is important to the success of the plan.
Based on the feedback, the consultant will finalize the plan before its adopted by the town. The town will then present its plan to the DOT in hopes of seeing the features it wants incorporated.
The DOT has cautioned that its feasibility study of South Main wasn’t intended as a detailed street design.
“It is not the Bible. It is not the final word on what is going to happen,” said Derrick Lewis, DOT road planner in Raleigh overseeing the DOT’s South Main feasibility study. “As a project moves thru the planning and design stages, the number of lanes, as well as the intersection configuration and design are always up for discussion based upon updated information and community input.”
The feasibility study took a broad look at how to best accommodate projected traffic 25 years from now. Details would not be hammered out in the final design stage.
Lewis said the DOT will listen to the town’s recommendations and decide whether to incorporate any of them. The DOT’s feasibility study is still considered in draft form.
“We put it in the holding pattern to see if there are any magic bullets come out of this study,” Lewis said.
Benson hopes the DOT will be receptive.
“I’m hoping he will look at this and won’t have any problem with what we came up with,” Benson said.
Based on a surface reading of the town’s plan, Lewis noticed several design features that may not jive with DOT street standards.
Want to weigh in?
Public input is sought on a plan to makeover South Main Street in Waynesville. A proposal to turn it into a vibrant, tree-line boulevard with pedestrian appeal will be presented at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the new Waynesville town hall building.
Ideas and critiques from the public will be solicited. To view the plan click here.