Center Street sidewalk plan abandoned

Residents walk along East Center Street toward a cluster of restaurants in downtown Fayetteville where a sidewalk improvement project is planned.

Photo: Todd Gill

An approved plan for wider sidewalks along East Center Street was revisited and eventually abandoned Tuesday night by the Fayetteville Street Committee.

Committee members decided to instead build standard-width sidewalks on both sides of the street that include streetlights and tree wells to match the surrounding area.

The decision comes just two weeks after the group approved construction of three concrete “bumpouts” which would extend the width of the sidewalks to about 16 feet in some areas on the south side of the street.

Bumpouts approved

The Street Committee originally voted to adopt this design, but without the bumpouts on the north side of the street.

The idea for the bumpouts was first considered after 21 downtown business owners – six that own restaurants – heard about an upcoming sidewalk replacement project and asked city staff to consider a plan that included extra public space to provide room for future sidewalk cafe-style patio seating and other amenities like bike racks and benches.

The plan, which first included bumpouts on both sides of the street, was met with resistance by property owners on the north side of the street who were concerned about the loss of seven out of 24 parking spaces within the proposed project’s boundaries.

Following two Street Committee meetings and a public input session, the group settled on a plan that would remove bumpouts on the north side of the street in an effort to add another three parking spaces to the new design.

Unexpected backlash

Kit Williams speaks during the Sept. 11 Street Committee meeting.

Photo: Todd Gill

Work was scheduled to begin this week, but the project was halted after a memo from City Attorney Kit Williams surfaced which warned of the potential for litigation should the bumpouts be built.

Williams said using public tax dollars to enlarge portions of the sidewalk for the use of private restaurants is “probably unconstitutional” because it involved diverting tax revenues from the purposes they were levied, which is to benefit the public.

When the committee met for its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday night, Williams reiterated the points from his memo, but once public comment began, the discussion immediately returned to the loss of parking spaces.

“We would like to see the restaurants thrive, we’d like to see more come, and we would like to see sidewalk cafes, but we don’t want to see giving up parking spaces that are critical to the businesses that have been there for a long, long time,” said Reed Greenwood, a Center Street property owner.

John Greenhaw, a Center Street attorney, called the idea “ludicrous.”

“I know that they’ve got this grand idea and it sounds good in theory, but folks, Fayetteville, Arkansas is not Paris, France,” said Greenhaw, speaking of Paris’ thriving sidewalk cafe, restaurant and bar scene. “I’m all for doing something good, but this is just an idea that is not fair to the property owners on the north side.”

Shared street plan (re)emerges

Others suggested a shared street plan that would keep the parking spaces open during the day, but would close them at night to allow for outdoor restaurant seating once the law offices and other businesses on the north side of the street closed for the day.

A shared street is a common space created to be shared by pedestrians, bicyclists, and motor vehicles. They are typically built without curbs and sidewalks and depend on differences in street color or texture to separate areas of use.

Ward 2 Alderman Matthew Petty, who sponsored the idea for the bumpouts, said a shared street was the original proposal brought forth by the business owners, but was scrapped because it would require a full reconstruction of the street.

“It was not in the budget and it was not feasible,” he said. “It would involve milling the street and regrading it at the very least which is a significant expense.”

Ward 3 Alderman and committee chair Bobby Ferrell suggested moving forward with standard sidewalks for now while looking into some type of shared space for the remainder of the street in the future.

Terry Gulley, the city’s transportation director, said the committee could request that a Center Street overlay be added to the 2013 list of street improvement projects the City Council is set to consider later this year.

Bumpouts abandoned

The Committee on Tuesday changed course and approved a design with no bumpouts and no loss of parking

The group voted 3-1 to remove the bumpouts, with Petty casting the sole “no” vote.

Petty said he was disappointed the plan was dumped, but that he would continue to pursue alternate street and sidewalk concepts in the city to help prepare for an expected growth in population over the next decade.

“The path to a successful future in Fayetteville is not figuring out how to handle more people parking, it’s figuring out how to change our spaces so that people don’t need to drive to them, and making more spaces walkable so people don’t have to drive everywhere they want to go,” said Petty.

“I think that the design of a street changes behavior on a street,” he added. “If we haven’t built a street where this kind of activity is possible in the next 10 years, we’re going to have failed.”