Sylva pedestrian plan to come one step at a time

Getting around on your own two feet in Sylva would be safer and easier if an ambitious, $4.5-million pedestrian plan becomes reality.

The plan — really, a wish list that would help keep the town moving now and in the future — is headed for review by the state Department of Transportation after being presented to civic leaders last week. The 20-year blueprint for getting from here to there safely calls for more sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic lights and a picnic area.

The state review is expected to take one to two months.

“I think this is the time to make the right choices for what we want in this community,” said John Bubacz, owner of Signature Brew Coffee Company, between tending to customers at the popular West Main Street establishment. “If we build more roads, we are going to only have more cars. If we make Sylva pedestrian-friendly, we’ll have families and out-of-town visitors walking to see what the town offers.”

 

What’s there, what’s not

Compared to many towns, Sylva is in fairly decent shape, said the plan’s primary architect, Don Kostelec. The town used a $20,000 Transportation Department grant to hire the Asheville-based consultant, the senior transportation planner for Transpo Group. Kostelec partnered with a local steering committee made up of town officials, the county’s greenways coordinator and others.

The sidewalks in downtown are wide, Kostelec said, and there are already some crosswalks in place. Additionally, the missing link of a sidewalk between Sylva and its neighbor, Dillsboro, is in the works, and a new bridge now connects downtown with a town park and playground, which were once cut off by Scott’s Creek.

But long-term, Kostelec said, the goal of the plan is to transform Sylva into truly “a great, walkable downtown.”

The plan will take time, money and patience to realize. Many of the recommendations fall under long-term goals that could take up to 20 years to build.

“Where I’m stuck is, where do we start pursuing funding for some of these projects?” said town Commissioner Stacey Knotts of the overall plan.

Kostelec suggested the town seek grants to help pay for the projects.

“Having an adopted policy kind of puts you in line, as I understand it,” Mayor Maurice Moody said.

Some business owners, however, want to remain focused on parking issues before that happens.

“It’s pretty important that we get more parking along Main Street,” said Ben Seay, the owner of My Place restaurant, who is better known for his ownership of Uncle Bill’s Flea Market, located between Sylva and Bryson City. “That’s the bigger problem. We need parking.”

The plan doesn’t ignore parking altogether. It acknowledges there are issues with typical parking lot designs in that the “primary carriageway for vehicles in the parking lot happens to coincide with where the greatest numbers of pedestrians cross: directly in front of the main entrance.”

For the most part, however, the plan is focused on what happens to people once they get out of their cars.

 

Sylva pedestrian plan

To make the costs more palatable, the plan is broken down into bite-sized pieces. Here are some of the recommendations.

Short-terms goals, 5 to 7 years, $289,000:

• Along Grindstaff Road, adding a crosswalk at Mill Street and upgrading the railroad crossing for pedestrian access.

• Building a picnic area outside the Jackson County Administration Building.

• Build a sidewalk from Grindstaff Road to Jackson Plaza.  

• Along N.C. 107, include crosswalk and pedestrian signals on Wal-Mart side to connect existing sidewalks and upgrade with future sidewalks along the highway.

• On Main and Mill streets, fill sidewalk gaps and upgrade existing sidewalks, and make pedestrian access to the courthouse via Keener from Main Street.

Mid-term goals, 5 to 12 years, $617,000:

• At the U.S. 23 Business and Skyland Drive intersection, adding crosswalks, installing “countdown” pedestrian signals and upgrading curb ramps to meet Americans with Disabilities Acts requirements.

• On Savannah Drive, from Keener to Cowee streets, improve the stairway to Mark Watson Park, fix problem areas on existing sidewalks.

Long-term goals, 20 years, $3.5 million:

• Sidewalks along U.S. 23 Business near the hospital.

• Sidewalks from N.C. 107 along the west side of Cope Creek Road.

Sylva pedestrian plan takes shape

The Town of Sylva finalized an agreement with the N.C. Department of Transportation last week that clears the way for a continuous sidewalk to Dillsboro.

The town will pitch in $83,000 to build the missing link and maintain the sidewalk, and N.C. DOT will cover the remaining costs.

The sidewalk extension has been a goal for the town board since 2008 and pre-dated Sylva’s pedestrian planning process. But it’s a success story that motivates Town Commissioner Sarah Graham to create similar partnerships in the future.

“You’ll be able to walk from Dillsboro to Webster on the sidewalk, and it just shows how easy it is to partner on projects like this,” Graham said.

When the 4,000-foot extension is completed this summer, it will connect Sylva’s sidewalks to Dillsboro’s by filling in a gap along West Main Street between Mark Watson Park and Jackson Village. The pedestrian planning process initiated in November was intended to lay a blueprint for similar pedestrian improvement projects in the future and to provide a platform for partnering with Jackson County and the DOT.

“I think everyone understands that the money to buy a bunch of sidewalks is not there right now,” Graham said. “But we wanted to hear from the community whether they shared the town board’s ideas about making the town more friendly to pedestrians.”

The town used a $20,000 N.C. DOT grant to hire Donald Kostelec, a consultant from the Asheville office of The Louis Berger Group, to oversee the process and provide technical input. The steering committee –– which includes Graham, Emily Elders, the county’s greenways coordinator, and Ryan Sherby of the Southwestern Commission –– began meeting in early November to develop a vision for the plan.

Last month, residents from a range of Sylva communities gathered for focus groups and offered input that would ultimately shape the plan’s direction.

The focus groups confirmed that the pedestrian plan would zero in on solutions for three primary areas –– Skyland Drive, Mill Street in the downtown district and the N.C. 107 commercial corridor.

Graham said the meetings helped create a consensus about how to focus the planning effort by bringing together residents from distinct neighborhoods.

Both Mill Street and N.C. 107 are commercial corridors that are currently dangerous for pedestrians because of their high-volume traffic and noticeable lack of safe crosswalks.

Kostelec said his intent with the focus groups was to zero in on the physical challenges presented by the areas that need improvement.

“We wanted to get down to identifying on the map where exactly people walk then figure out where those patterns will move in the future,” Kostelec said.

The town used a pedestrian survey to get input from residents. The survey asks people where they walk, how often, and where they would like to be able to walk in the future.

Kostelec said each of the three areas pegged for improvement comes with its own set of challenges. Skyland Drive is an area in need of new sidewalks, which are costly. The goal is to connect Sylva’s downtown with the Harris Regional Hospital campus and Skyland’s commercial district.

“Doing that type of project in one chunk is not going to be possible for a town of Sylva’s size,” Kostelec said.

Kostelec said he is still working on pinning down the right of way restrictions on Skyland, an old state highway route, to see if there is room for a separated sidewalk between the road and train tracks.

N.C. 107 is a heavily trafficked part of town that is cursed by a narrow right of way. Kostelec said any plan to improve the sidewalks would involve getting easements from neighboring property owners.

Mill Street is an area that could see marked improvement at a relatively modest price point because it’s not a terribly long stretch to tackle. But because the road is maintained by the DOT, any work there is contingent on good cooperation between the town and the department, Graham said.

“The implementation will have a lot to do with cooperation from DOT, because Mill Street is a DOT road,” Graham said. “I’m hoping if we have a plan in hand and we’ve been through the process and we know what we want, that those negotiations will be a lot easier.”

The Pedestrian Plan will be showcased at an open house during the Greening Up the Mountains Festival on April 24. Sylva’s Pedestrian Plan Survey is available at www.townofsylva.org.

Waynesville on target with sidewalk construction

Waynesville is a leader when it comes walkable communities, according to a consultant hired to develop a long-range pedestrian plan for the town.

“I would like to say this is a unique situation,” Terry Snow with Wilbur Smith Associates told the town board during a meeting last month. “We came into a town that already had a pedestrian plan in place. You are already doing this and doing a great job.”

The town systematically analyzes its sidewalk system for where missing links are needed. It builds new sections each year, gradually building out the network. The town has a short greenway and a master plan to extend it. It even requires commercial developers to build sidewalks as part of new construction, whether it’s Super Wal-Mart or a hair salon.

Mayor Gavin Brown said the town board has placed an emphasis on creating a pedestrian-friendly community.

“We believe it is an important part of the social fabric of our community,” Brown said. “We firmly believe in the concept of ‘build it and they will walk.’”

After a year-long process, Snow presented the finished product of a long-range pedestrian plan to the town board. It outlines immediate sidewalk priorities, plus those five, 10 and 15 years from now.

“I think it is wonderful to have these kind of points out in the future that we need to meet,” said Alderwoman Libba Feichter. “This board is committed to enhancing our walkable community, and I believe this community is committed to that.”

The pedestrian plan was funded with a grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation. Public input was sought at meetings and in surveys.

“There was overwhelming support for having an interconnected system,” Snow said of the public input. People wanted more sidewalks, more greenways and less speeding.

The consultant made just one recommendation: way-finding signage. These customized signs are often mounted on eye-level posts pointing the way to shops, parks and the like.

Not all developers are fans of the town’s sidewalk requirement. Some question why they should build a sidewalk in front of their building when the property to either side doesn’t have one.

“It’s the age-old problem of putting in a sidewalk to nowhere,” Snow said. “But it is harder to build a continuous sidewalk project. It is a lot easier to fill in the gaps.”

The reason is funding, which can be scarce while building sidewalks are expensive.

There has been talk of giving developers the option of paying into a sidewalk kitty, which the town could apply to somewhere else in town if a particular development genuinely doesn’t warrant a sidewalk.

Waynesville seeks input on pedestrian plan

A master plan for making Waynesville even more pedestrian friendly has been unveiled after a year in the making. The long-range plan lays out priorities for new sidewalks over the next 15 years.

“The basic rationale was to fill in small missing links on main roads first,” said Paul Benson, town planner. In later years, the plan calls for extending sidewalks into residential areas.

Topping the priority list is South Main Street. Despite a new Super Wal-Mart being built within walking distance of hundreds of homes, missing stretches of sidewalk inhibit pedestrians fromwalking to it, Benson said.

Other top priorities are along roads slated for a redesign anyway, which Benson described as the low-hanging fruit since the town can get state funding for sidewalks if they are built in conjunction with road construction. Otherwise, the town only has enough money to tackle 1,000 to 1,500 new feet of sidewalk a year, according to Public Works Director Fred Baker. Since funds are limited, it’s important to have a plan that lays out priorities, he said.

The town got a $20,000 grant from the N.C. Department of Transportation to hire a consultant to create the pedestrian plan. A steering committee was appointed by the town to guide the process.

The town also held a public workshop, conducted surveys and solicited email comments to gather a spectrum of views. Nearly 100 members of the public shared their gripes and wish-list for areas needing pedestrian improvement.

“It gets the public involved in deciding which ones are most important and it gives the town a blueprint to follow when making decisions,” Benson said.

A public workshop on the plan will be held from 5 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 25, at town hall. The town wants to hear from the public about where they want to see sidewalks or what intersections and crossings they consider dangerous for pedestrians. The town will incorporate public comments into the final plan.

For more information, or to view a draft plan, please contact Paul Benson at 828.456.2004.

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