City planners create vision for MLK Boulevard

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comMay 27, 2013 

Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, a street winding through a landscape of poverty and blight, doesn't quite reflect the lofty dreams of its namesake.

"We have 2.2 miles of roadway honoring Dr. King that literally goes nowhere," said Ronzell Buckner, a local businessman spearheading an effort to spruce up the boulevard. "As a city this size, and with all that Dr. King accomplished and the legacy he left, we need to do more to show we truly appreciate the sacrifice that he gave for this country, and also for the world."

Such concerns have inspired city planners to propose a "Streetscapes Project" for Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, which currently runs from Buena Vista Road to 10th Avenue. The proposal calls for a narrower roadway, new sidewalks and landscaped medians. It also includes street trees, bus shelters, multi-use trails and linear park improvements.

In addition to aesthetics, the project would also include markers at specific locations to tell the civil rights story in Columbus, according to the proposal. It would recognize such pioneers as A.J. McClung, who served on the Columbus Council for 28 years and became the city's first black mayor after Mayor J.R. Allen was killed in a plane crash in 1973. McClung held the position for 52 days.

Jones said the markers would also pay tribute to the lives of Henry Cook, a dentist and historian; Shadrack Marshall, a former principal of 28th Street and Claflin schools; and Dr. Thomas Brewer, a physician and civil rights activist assassinated in 1956.

"It initially started out as a regular Streetscapes program -- you go in and add additional curbing and sidewalks, put trees in and do signage, things of that nature," said City Planning Director Rick Jones. "But the more we looked at it, we realized it really could be so much more, mainly because of the history that surrounds that site."

Jones said his department began working on the proposal after King's birthday in 2012 at the suggestion of City Manager Isaiah Hugley. He said Hugley informed planners that he had heard complaints from citizens who considered the boulevard a poor tribute to King's life.

These days, the population along the boulevard is 77 percent black and 36 percent of the residents live below the poverty line. The area accounted for 19 percent of the city's violent crimes between 2004 and 2010, according to city statistics. It currently has a high concentration of rental properties, warehouses, abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

"It's just a four-lane highway with a lot of mixed-use areas along the way, but there's really nothing attractive about it," Jones said. "So the idea was: How could we go back and really address that?"

Jones said his department developed a concept and presented it to the City Council in November. It included a couple options for narrowing the roadway, which accommodates about 6,600 cars a day. The road could be developed into four, three or two lanes depending on the option selected.

The boulevard is already scheduled for resurfacing, according to the planning department.

"I think the interest is there. It's just a matter of us trying to find the money and probably the matching funds to go with it," Jones said. "I think it has always been the hope and dream that the community itself would want to take this on, as well, and be a partner with the city to make it happen."

The street, formerly called Brookhaven Boulevard, was named after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1978. At the time, it was the southern boundary of a predominantly black community.

City land-use plans call for the majority of the area north of the boulevard to be developed into single family homes, with light industrial uses along the south side of the road.

Buckner, a Columbus native, owns Skippers Seafood Restaurant on Buena Vista Road. He supports the city proposal, but would like the plans to go even further, extending MLK Jr. Boulevard beyond Buena Vista Road all the way to Macon Road on the north. On the South, he would like the boulevard to cross 10th Avenue and run all the way to the river.

Buckner said he would like the street to become an "outdoor learning center" to teach people about Columbus' civil rights history. He and Carver High School students have been compiling historical information to educate the community about the project, he said. They recently presented some of their research to business leaders.

If extended, Buckner said the outdoor learning center could include historical landmarks like the Rigdon Road School, named after the Rigdon family that built the city's first watershed on Bull Creek; the Carver Heights Motel, which accommodated famous entertainers; and Carver Heights, a subdivision where many black military families settled when they returned from World War II.

Jones said the planning department's plans don't include extending the boulevard, which would require input from area landowners and businesses and approval by the City Council. He said it's up to Buckner to rally the support.

"If Mr. Buckner and others want to do that it's fine with us," he said. "But it's a City Council decision to make."

Buckner said he's already gathering signatures. He said Phenix City has named Highway 431, a prominent corridor, in honor of Dr. King, and it's time for Columbus to do the same.

"If you don't live or travel through South Columbus, you don't know that we recognize his sacrifice," Buckner said. "Everybody should have an opportunity to see and respect what Dr. King did to move this country forward."

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