N.C. 107 footprint expands
July 15 was a busy Thursday night at Bogart’s Restaurant in Sylva. The dining room was full of people and conversation, the kitchen hopping.
Then came the fire. The grease on the grill ignited, the flames climbing into the hood system. It looked like a big chimney fire, said owner Tim Hall. A volunteer fireman who happened to be dining there saw it and jumped into action, evacuating the occupants. The fire department arrived within two minutes, and while they extinguished the fire, the extensive smoke and water damage left behind meant that Hall would have to rebuild from the studs if he wanted to use the building again.
Two weeks later, Hall got some more bad news. A longtime customer who is also an employee with the N.C. Department of Transportation, told him that the DOT’s plans for N.C. 107 had changed again. Now, the project would destroy Hall’s entire building.
“I’ve never been through anything like this as an owner,” said Hall, clutching the door of one of the sea containers now peppering the parking lot to shield himself from a stiff wind. “I’ve been in business since 1984. And this pandemic, the fire and then the state (road project) is sort of the trifecta. I just couldn’t bounce back from it.”
Bogart’s is one of about nine businesses that recently found out that the N.C. 107 remake would boot them from their buildings. While earlier versions of the plan would have eaten away much of the parking at Bogart’s and at the three buildings skirting the intersection with U.S. 23, also known as Asheville Highway, the buildings were going to stay. But the most recent version of the plans calls for taking the structures too.
For Hall, 62, that made the decision simple — though certainly no less painful. There was no reason to rehabilitate the smoke-damaged building if the DOT was just going to tear it down.
“Having to tell people that, it hurts,” he said. “The worst thing was telling my employees in a meeting. That was the hardest thing.”
New plans released
The latest changes to the road plan came in September, when the DOT completed its 75% plans for the long-debated road project.
While potential remedies for traffic congestion and frequent fender benders on the road have been debated for decades, in 2017 the DOT released an initial concept and concrete path forward for the road project. The remake will extend from West Main Street at the fire department all the way out past Ingles, plus a one-third mile section of the Old Asheville Highway from McDonald’s to the N.C. 107 intersection. The DOT plans to build a five-lane road with a grassy median to replace the existing “suicide lane,” along with bike lanes and improved sidewalks.
Those improvements will require widening the road, which will require purchasing property — and a lot of it. Though the DOT doesn’t have an official number, the road project is expected to require more than 50 businesses to close or relocate.
The DOT expanded that number to include Bogart’s and nearby buildings on the Asheville Highway when further analysis showed the existing road plan would take at least 90% of the properties’ value due to extreme encroachment on parking.
“If you can’t get to the business, can’t get to the structure, you’re going to damage it significantly. The business cannot remain viable,” said Senior Project Engineer Jeannette White. “Looking at that, it just makes sense to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and pay full cost of acquiring those structures.”
Doing so will allow the DOT to consider additional roadway features to improve traffic movement on the corridor. DOT staff came to the conclusion that acquiring those properties would be the best solution just a couple weeks before the fire at Bogart’s, said White. The agency made sure to let Hall know about those discussions before he pulled the trigger on renovations to the damaged building.
A review of the plans also caught an error in which road designers failed to look at peak volume traffic when designing the right turn lane for Dunkin’ Donuts. That meant that, as written, the plans would not alleviate backups into the main lanes during those peak times. Now, the plans include free-flow lanes that encroach on the existing Dunkin’ Donuts building. The business plans to relocate on the same parcel to accommodate the project, White said.
Newly revised road plans will take out this strip mall on the Asheville Highway, as well as the green-roofed building below it that contains Liberty Tax Service, among other businesses. Holly Kays photo
A blow for new businesses
For other entrepreneurs on the strip, the news came at a much different time in the life of their business.
“It’s posed some concerns for us, because we’re afraid to move to any of the other locations that have a high traffic visibility area, because they are eventually going to get moved,” said Angela Zoran of Imperial Security and Wiring . “Even if they’re told, ‘We’re only taking your parking lot,’ apparently that is not in stone.”
Zoran and her husband Mark moved into the gray Asheville Highway strip mall owned by Kole Clapsaddle in April, spending more than $30,000 to renovate the space and set it up as a showroom for their home automation business. They’d operated the business out of their house for years, but finally decided to pull the trigger on a public storefront, hoping to gain more visibility in town.
Just a couple months later, they learned that their new location was slated for destruction, and that because they’d been in the space for less than two years, they’d receive fewer benefits than if they been there longer. Now, Zoran is not sure they’ll even stay in Sylva. There are only so many business locations in town, and the ones with the highest traffic visibility are the ones most vulnerable to the road project.
Alicia Buckley of The Sylva Love Nest is in a similar situation. She and her husband David opened the store in June. The couple also own The Pied Piper, which is located in another one of Clapsaddle’s properties. When the Asheville Highway space came available, they jumped on it.
“It’s a great location,” she said. “All of a sudden, a month and a half, two months into it, I found out that this building is going to go too. It was definitely a surprise. It’s a bummer.”
Unlike Zoran, Buckley does have somewhere to go — a business behind Zaxby’s, whose space is also owned by Clapsaddle, plans to leave. The landlord has offered her a place there. Regardless, it’s a loss. Though she didn’t put near the money into her store that the Zorans did, she did incur some cost. She’ll miss the current location’s high visibility, and she’s worried about how the road project will affect the town as a whole.
“What is the overall commerce in Sylva going to look like?” she said. “Are they going to rip up everything? Is it going to be a ghost town? It’s unnerving.”
The new timeline
The design and timeline for the pivotal project have changed multiple times since the first concrete plans were released in 2018. At that time, the DOT estimated the work would be done by 2022 and cost $35.5 million.
Now it’s the end of 2021, and right-of-way acquisition has only just begun. Construction isn’t expected to start until the second half of 2024. Estimated costs continue to increase, with figures calculated on June 10 placing the total cost at $116.1 million, of which $56.2 million is for construction, $52.7 million for right-of-way, and $7.2 million for utilities. The estimate represents a 7.8% increase over previously released figures, White said.
Though there are still three years to go before construction, the DOT wants to see the right-of-way acquisition process wrap up in two years. It’s contracting with Charlotte-based TELICS to manage the right-of-way phase, which began in July.
To Zoran, the recently announced changes at the N.C. 107 and U.S. 23 intersection show that no plan is final and that even properties declared safe from the road project can be gobbled up at any time. But White said that acquisitions outlined in the 75% plans are “pretty much set in stone” — with one exception.
Plans could still shift on both sides of the roadside corridor from Pizza Hut to the Lowe’s entrance depending on what the DOT decides to do about Mill Creek. When the road was widened in the 1980s, the DOT encased the creek in 6-foot pipes and buried it under the road. Current standards require two 6-foot pipes to route the stream, not just one, but making that change would significantly impact businesses located close to the roadside. The design team is considering rerouting the stream to flow along the backside of the properties instead. White hopes to have a more definitive plan by next summer.
Other than that, she said, the 100% plans shouldn’t include any changes to acquisition plans compared to the 75% version. Remaining issues to work out mostly involve decisions about pavement marking, traffic management, erosion control and traffic flow. Additionally, final plans will include a bridge realignment and potential refurbishments to another bridge.
While the project will be painful, said White, she believes it will ultimately benefit the town by creating a safer and more sustainable roadway.
“During the process and during construction it is painful, but it is in my opinion the right thing to do for the safety of the community,” she said.
In previous years, there may well have been a loud chorus of opposition to such a statement. Charlie Schmidt, general manager for Sylva institution Speedy’s Pizza, was one of the loudest voices in those discussions, but he said he’s now shifted to general acceptance that the project — and the destruction of the building that’s housed Speedy’s for more than three decades — is inevitable.
“The time to stop it or fight it is obviously long gone,” he said. “Something’s going to happen, so we just gotta figure out the best way to move forward.”