Community debates future of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Columbus as anniversary of 'I Have a Dream' speech nears

ajjohnson@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 25, 2013 

In 1978, Robert L. Wright wanted to honor the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. So as a city councilman he persuaded his colleagues to rename Brookhaven Boulevard in King's memory.

The road now runs from 10th Avenue to Buena Vista Road in a neighborhood marked by poverty and blight.

"I wasn't dealing with aesthetics. I was dealing with honoring Dr. King," Wright said Friday. "That road was chosen because it came through the black community and was in my council district."

Now as the nation prepares to commemorate the 50th anniversary of King's "I Have a Dream Speech" on Wednesday, Columbus is still looking for the best way to honor the civil rights leader's legacy. This time the focus is on sprucing up the 2.2-mile roadway, but not everybody is in agreement on how that should be done.

Last week, City Manager Isaiah Hugley and Planning Director Rick Jones held two public meetings to unveil a concept for revitalizing the boulevard and to get input from the public. They presented the community with two options: Maintain the current four lanes along the roadway or reduce the lanes to three -- two going in either direction and a turning lane in the middle.

They said the city already has $850,000 to $1 million to resurface and restripe the road and will have to seek another $12 million from grants to fund other improvements. About 6,700 vehicles travel daily on the boulevard. A three-lane road can accommodate up to 20,000 vehicles a day and four lanes up to 40,000, Jones said.

The Aug. 19 meeting was held at the City Services Center and Thursday's meeting at Lewis Memorial Baptist Church. Hugley said city planners would tabulate community input and try to make a recommendation to City Council within the next 30 days,

But the forums sparked passionate debate among stakeholders who lined up on both sides of the issue. Proponents of the three-lane scenario argued that three lanes would slow down traffic and invite more pedestrians, bikers and neighborhood businesses. Opponents said a four-lane roadway is needed to accommodate the needs of existing businesses and future economic development in south Columbus.

Hugley said it was up to the community to decide, but city planners favor a three-lane scenario. He said three lanes would use less city right-of-way, which would provide more room for not only landscaping and lighting, but also a multi-purpose trail and historical markers that would highlight the accomplishments of local civil rights pioneers.

"I believe Martin Luther King Boulevard needs to be as nice aesthetically as any other street in the city," he said. "In fact, because of the name it bears, it should be better."

Jones acknowledged the upcoming anniversary of the March on Washington and said the city wants to make Martin Luther King Boulevard a street everyone can be proud of.

"You can go to just about any community, any community, in the country and they've got a Dr. King Memorial Highway," he said. "But I also will guarantee you that 90 percent of the time it is a roadway that nobody cares about. It was done pretty much as an act to pacify either the African-American community or somebody within that roadway. That's unfortunate. And to some degree, Columbus has been guilty of that a little bit. Here's an opportunity to make that change and make it really stand for something in the community."

The three-lane option was supported by Ronzell Buckner, a local businessman who has been spearheading an effort to spruce up the boulevard; Marquese Averett of Young Minority Leaders; Pat McHenry of Bicycle Columbus; MidTown Inc. Board of Directors; some residents; and other community leaders.

Buckner said three lanes would make the roadway more conducive to families and to the elderly who travel by motorized chairs. And the historical parkway could inspire a new generation of leaders.

"This is not about us," he said to the adults in the audience. "This is about our future. If I just think about myself, I'm being selfish. This is about my grandchildren so they can see the history of what African-Americans did."

Among those in opposition are Councilman Bruce Huff; his sister-in-law, Tax Commissioner Lula Huff, and some business owners. Mayor Pro-Tem Evelyn Turner Pugh, who attended the Aug. 19 meeting, said she was still undecided but concerned about the impact reducing the lanes would have on the area. Hugley said Councilman Jerry "Pops" Barnes, who represents the district, was out of town dealing with family matters in Philadelphia.

Bruce Huff said changes to the boulevard must be made with other city projects in mind. He referred to a project already moving forward to improve traffic conditions just east of the roadway, where Buena Vista, Brennan, Andrews and St. Marys roads converge. The Spider Web project, as it is called, is expected to alleviate traffic delays caused by a railroad line. Huff said the project, scheduled for 2015, should be completed by 2019 and will bring significant traffic back to Martin Luther King Boulevard. He said the boulevard is already the east/west corridor for a lot of commercial traffic and reducing the lanes would be counterproductive.

"Martin Luther King is built for truck traffic," he said. "We can get the trucks in from downtown, across town, and into the area. And any company looking to come to our area has to bring supplies in."

Lula Huff said the city would still have to find money for the rest of the project, and there's no guarantee that will ever materialize. She said three lanes could also affect police and fire safety and hurt businesses.

"You want economic development over here," she said to the audience. "You can get beautification, but once you give up those four lanes, that's what you'll never get back."

Theo Austin, owner of Sho-Tyme Auto Repairs, said he's concerned three lanes would make it difficult for him and other business owners to get trucks to their shops.

"I'm looking out for my business," he said. "I'm trying to make a living and take care of my family. This is the main thoroughfare to get downtown."

But Averett, of Young Minority Leaders, said opponents of three lanes are hindering progress. He referred to recent newspaper articles that described how three-lane roads helped calm traffic and revitalize other communities around the country. He said he didn't want the Martin Luther King project to suffer the fate of the city's now defunct plans to build apartments around the historic Liberty District. The Columbus Housing Authority abandoned the plans after strong opposition from the Huffs and some community activists.

"Where's it now?" Averett asked the audience. "That project is dead."

Lula Huff, whose family owns property in the Liberty District, said at the time that she opposed the project because she thought it would stifle plans for economic development. On Thursday, she turned to Averett and said: "If you've got any questions about the Liberty District, please see me. It's not dead. We're working on it."

Nadine Moore was another opponent of the Liberty District project, and she also favors four lanes. She said Martin Luther King Boulevard brings traffic to the district, and the more the better.

"Four lanes will make the Liberty District more accessible to people that are trying to find it," she said. "If you shorten the road, you will take traffic away from the area."

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