Waynesville has one chance to get South Main Street right, or live with the consequences for decades to come. And the town isn’t taking any chances. The N.C. Department of Transportation had barely gotten started on a feasibility study for a street makeover when the town began hunting for grants to do its own independent yet simultaneous feasibility study.
The community has to speak up on the front end to let DOT know what it wants, said Mayor Gavin Brown.
“There is a default button over there and they will hit it,” Brown said. “That’s what I want to avoid. I want to make sure we have input into the process when DOT finally gets around to doing something.”
There’s a lot riding on a South Main makeover. It will dictate what Waynesville’s west side becomes. Will West Waynesville become the next West Asheville, transforming into a hip walkable community, albeit three decades from now? Or will it follow in the footsteps of Russ Avenue, a high-traffic commercial hotbed?
“We want to create a place that is a destination — a place that can be called a place and not just a street or a bypass,” said Rodney Porter, a consultant hired by the town to steer the feasibility study. “It is nice to look at public streets as public spaces. When we do that, we really can sort of revive a community based on a streetscape.”
But as a key gateway into town, South Main currently leaves a lot to be desired, said Porter, an urban designer with LaQuatra Bonci in Asheville.
“I don’t know if South Main right now is the character of Waynesville,” Porter said. “I think we can really change the voice of what this street is saying.”
Paul Benson, Waynesville’s town planner, didn’t put it quite so tactfully.
“It is so blighted right now, it is like a third-world country,” Benson said.
The street is pocked by vacant buildings with boarded up windows, and a crop of litter-strewn, weed-speckled parking lots.
Porter said it’s not terribly difficult to transform the status quo, however. A few tricks of the trade can make a big impact: trees edging the street, sidewalks and bike lanes, a planted median, clusters of benches — simply marked crosswalks would be a start.
“A strong design will give a sense of place on the street,” Porter said.
But all these niceties add up, with the street’s footprint inching wider and wider all the while. There’s five feet for each bike lane, six for each sidewalk, five for a planted tree strip, at least 17 feet for a median. The road quickly balloons to a 100-foot swath, and that’s where the rubber will likely meet the road, Benson said.
The wider the footprint, the more property gets gobbled up. In some cases, when it comes to the dilapidated buildings and vagrant parking lots, seeing them go might not be such a bad thing.
But South Main is also home to long-standing businesses that could be wiped out if the new street gets too wide.
“Does it sacrifice those of us who are in that route to get there?” asked David Blevins, owner of the gas station across from Super Wal-Mart. “There are people who do make a living from those rundown gas stations and I was curious how they will reconcile that.”
South Main is also the lifeblood for nearby neighborhoods: the upscale Waynesville Country Club, middle-class Auburn Park, and the many tightly packed, working class neighborhoods that radiate through West Waynesville, testament to its bustling mill village days when factories dominated the blue-collar side of town.
A wider road will push commercial development back and up against the edge of these neighborhoods.
“I don’t want to impact that community more adversely than it has to,” said Waynesville Mayor Gavin Brown. “My preference would be smaller so it wouldn’t impact the neighborhoods.”
Benson said middle ground might actually be simple. Usually, commercial interests are the chief lobby for wider roads. But in this case, the businessmen fear the front of their lots being lopped off too much.
“The people who want the widest road are also the people who don’t want as much of their property taken,” Benson said. “I think it will be easy to find middle ground on this project. It is so bad right now that anyone will welcome any kind of improvement.”
But there will be choices to make. It might not be possible to add lanes, plus a planted median, street trees, bike lines and sidewalks on both sides. Which make the cut will likely be the subject of debate as the planning process plays out.
Plus, the DOT has some flexibility to narrow lanes and narrow the median, making them smaller than the standard — deviating from that default that Mayor Brown referred to. But those are mere kinks, and not the purpose of the feasibility study.
“You can make those choices later,” said Derek Lewis, DOT road planner in Raleigh overseeing the DOT’s South Main feasibility study. “We don’t get that deep into the weeds in the feasibility study. A feasibility study is at a 40,000 foot level shooting down while still being as context sensitive as we can.”
The town kicked-off the planning process for South Main three weeks ago with a community meeting.
Property owners along South Main and existing business owners dominated the table. But Porter wants regular folks in the mix, too.
“Not just business owners but residents all throughout Waynesville use this space,” Porter said. “We want to make sure we are doing the right thing for this corridor as a whole and not just particular individuals. We want a strong public process.”
Nancy Felder, a resident who travels South Main everyday, sees a street makeover as the key to a better community.
“We’re interested in seeing things revitalized in this area,” Felder said.
The nearby Waynesville Country Club is among the players vested in South Main’s makeover.
“This South Main Street traffic flow is totally critical to our business,” said David Stubbs, co-owner of the Waynesville Country Club.
The independent feasibility study will cost $55,000, with 80 percent of the cost paid for with a federal planning grant.
When looking for the right consultant, town leaders wanted a firm that understood new urbanism and valued multimodal streets, incorporating pedestrian and bikes.
“We wanted a progressive plan,” Benson said.
Porter said his firm would take a holistic view of the street makeover.
Primed for growth?
Even before Super Wal-Mart opened in 2008, property owners eagerly erected For Sale signs accompanied by staggering asking prices.
But the commercial boom the community was both hoping for and bracing for has yet to materialize.
While property in the Super Wal-Mart development itself has moved — a Verizon, Best Buy, car wash, beauty supply store, and soon a Belk’s, Pet Smart and Michael’s — the rest of the property owners along South Main found they weren’t sitting on quite the goldmine they thought.
Commercial property values only rose 8 percent along South Main Street since the Super Wal-Mart came in, according to the recent property reappraisal conducted by the county.
Benson said the recession has merely delayed inevitable commercial growth on South Main, not sidelined it permanently.
“I think the national economy right now is what is going to keep that area from developing more,” Benson said.
For at least 15 years, a South Main makeover has been at the top of Waynesville’s road wish list. But it was the coming of Super Wal-Mart gave South Main a needed push to get the DOT’s attention.
A makeover was no longer a purely aesthetic undertaking, but the promise of commercial growth would mean more cars, and the element of traffic congestion now warranted an examination by the DOT.
The DOT in 2009 launched a feasibility study of the street. When exactly DOT will get around to redoing South Main isn’t clear. For now, it’s not in the DOT’s 10-year plan.
And while congestion is becoming a problem, until it gets worse, the project may not be considered a priority by the DOT.
How congested does it have to get before DOT will tackle the makeover?
“That is the $64,000 question,” said Benson. “As congestion get worse it will rank higher and become a higher priority to build.”
Yet without a street makeover, commercial growth might not materialize as quickly, posing a chicken and egg conundrum. Porter said a nicer street, if built, would help attract commercial development and investment.
“If we improve the street life will we have changes in development?” Porter asked. “That is what we are looking for: how can we re-energize this street.”
Mayor Brown believes that commercial growth will come regardless of whether the makeover happens now or later.
“The business people will go wherever they can to make dollars. If they see an opportunity to make money, they will do it whether there is a new road or not,” Brown said.
But, the town will soon have a plan on paper at least, giving prospective developers an idea of what they can expect to happen one day, Brown said, even if it might be a long time off.
“Once a businessman knows that, he will build accordingly,” Brown said.
Which is why Brown wanted to hire a consultant to come up with a makeover plan, even if it will be a decade or more before it earns a spot at the top of the DOT’s build list.
“Is it an exercise in futility?” Brown asked. “No, it will benefit the community as a whole.”
Meanwhile, the DOT has put the final version of its feasibility study on hold to see what the town and its consultant come up with.