Thursday, May 13, 2010
Metro columnist Dan Casey: Finding a happy median
Once again, there is controversy about vehicles being allowed in Smith Park.
Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times
The bridge over the Roanoke River on the Wasena side of Smith Park reopened to foot traffic May 1 and to car traffic just a few days ago.
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Are we headed for another battle over vehicular traffic on Wiley Drive through Smith Park?
The answer to that one isn't quite clear just yet. But already, some greenways advocates are pushing for a ban on cars in the Roanoke River park, the most used section of the Roanoke River Greenway.
Meanwhile, some advocates for people with disabilities are pushing back, like they did a decade ago.
One of the close-the-road crowd is Duane Howard, a former Roanoke mayoral candidate who helped lead an effort to keep the park closed to cars 10 years ago.
That donnybrook before the Roanoke City Council came after the road had been closed for many months during a sewage line upgrade. The result was a kind of, sort of victory.
With Solomon-like wisdom, the council decided to split the then two-way road down its center and reserve one side for pedestrians and cyclists, and other side for one-way vehicular traffic, plus a limited amount of parking.
Another result was an ugly, concrete-curb divider dotted with even uglier large, concrete planters. It is the most ridiculous-looking greenway segment in the city's prettiest park.
Besides allowing vehicular access for people who use wheelchairs, the council's decision preserved a popular, low-traffic shortcut for motorists driving from Wasena to South Roanoke.
The one-way, half hiker-biker path, half road has been there ever since.
But it was closed to traffic last fall to replace the bridge over the Roanoke River on the Wasena side of Smith Park.
The bridge reopened to foot traffic May 1 and was informally opened to car traffic just a few days ago, said Steve Buschor, city parks and recreation director. A formal reopening is slated for June.
Howard, who is disabled but does not use a wheelchair, has attempted to make his case for a traffic-free Smith Park before a subcommittee of the Mayor's Committee on People with Disabilities, and the city's Parks and Recreation Advisory Board.
He said he believes a greenway should be a car-free oasis in a city where they already are everywhere else.
Banning cars would give disabled people more access to Smith Park, Howard argues, rather than less, because people in wheelchairs could use the portion of road now reserved for vehicles.
Ron McCorkle, a bicycling safety activist who founded Roanoke's ShareBike, said crowds that flock to the Smith Park Greenway on nice days have made it dangerous for both cyclists and pedestrians.
Right now, "it's just unsafe," McCorkle said. The number of greenway users is only going to grow, and "over the coming years I just feel there are going to be a number of accidents."
But Howard met some stiff opposition when it came before the mayor's committee and the parks and rec advisory board.
Some came from Hallie Stanley, with the Spina Bifida Association of the Roanoke Valley. Some more came from Elaine Chocklett, whose late mother used to lead the Mayor's Committee on People with Disabilities. Neither could be reached for comment.
Pat Eby, chairwoman of the Mayor's Committee on People with Disabilities, told me Wednesday that closing the road to cars could be an advantage to blind pedestrians who wanted to walk there.
But it could be a bad deal for people who use wheelchairs if it limits accessibility to Smith Park.
"It's a reasonable idea down the road, but I think that right now if we have one place that's truly accessible, we really need to keep it that way," Eby said.
Buschor said he has forwarded Howard's comments to the city manager's office. But he doesn't see it gaining traction at this point.
Liz Belcher, executive director of the Roanoke Valley Greenways Commission, said she believes the issue is less controversial right now than a decade ago because more people recognize the benefits of greenways.
We'll see. Stay tuned.
Dan Casey's column runs Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.