Monday, October 15, 2007
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Bridge to open to foot traffic soon

Renovations on a bridge downtown dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. should end by Oct. 29.

Renovations on a bridge downtown dedicated to Martin Luther King Jr. should end by Oct. 29

Photos by Stephanie Klein-Davis | The Roanoke Times

An Allegheny Construction Co. worker walks Friday across the Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial Bridge in downtown Roanoke.

One council member said he hopes the bridge will serve as a 'gateway' to downtown

A man works Friday on the bridge that one council member said he hopes will serve as a "gateway" to downtown.

King Bridge

The former First Street bridge that links downtown Roanoke with historic Gainsboro will reopen to foot traffic by the end of this month with a new name and a new look.

Renovations on the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Bridge started in September 2006, but are scheduled for completion by Oct. 29, said Brian Townsend, Roanoke's assistant city manager for community development.

He said the bridge should be open to pedestrian traffic soon after. The bridge, which connects Salem Avenue and First Street, separated the city's black and white communities during the Jim Crow era.

The city council is also scheduled to vote Thursday on renaming First Street Northwest between Centre Avenue and Wells Avenue to Henry Street Northwest -- its historic name.

More changes will come later this year. The city will soon begin construction of a King statue and memorial park at the north end of the bridge. It's slated to be completed and dedicated on King's birthday in January.

The construction costs for the renovation, which include the bridge work, landscaping and the gateway pillars, came to nearly $4 million after increases caused by inflation, increased construction costs and federal requirements. It was initially planned to reopen in April, but that date was pushed back. Allegheny Construction Co. is the contractor.

The city council had earlier considered naming Elmwood Park or Orange Avenue after King, but after those plans were rejected, members voted in 2003 to rename the bridge instead.

"This is an indication that at long last Roanoke city administration has conceded to have something named after the honorable Dr. King," said Gainsboro neighborhood activist Evelyn Bethel. "It really should have been done before this."

Councilman Alfred Dowe, one of two black city councilmen, recounted an experience he had in Bluefield, W.Va., in discussing the importance of King's name.

"After we'd get off the train, I'd walk through the town to see what was in the town. One of the first things I saw was a Martin Luther King bridge. Suddenly I felt better about being there," Dowe said. "It sends a signal that as an African-American, you're acknowledged, you're recognized. I felt immediately better about the city and didn't know anything else about it."

Dowe has said in the past that the bridge will provide an additional "gateway" to downtown Roanoke. He said Friday that it may well become a destination for visitors to the city, and he hopes signs are added to direct tourists to various downtown attractions.

Ted Edlich, executive director of Total Action Against Poverty, said the bridge will become an important spot for Gainsboro residents as well.

"With the increased development of the Gainsboro area, which is well on its way, you'll see increased traffic coming downtown through that area," Edlich said. "It's a good step forward."

Edlich and Tom McKeon, executive director of the Roanoke Higher Education Center, hope the traffic works both ways, bringing downtown residents and visitors to the Dumas Center for Artistic & Cultural Development and the soon-to-open Claude Moore Education Complex. The latter is a $5 million expansion of the higher education center that will house a culinary school, auditorium, meeting space, herb garden and outdoor plaza.

McKeon, who also serves as president of Downtown Roanoke Inc., said he thinks the reopening of the bridge will further contribute to a "pedestrian-friendly" downtown district.

"In my mind, that's what makes downtowns work," McKeon said. "You get people through the downtown, get them parked, and then they have so much access to things on foot in a relatively compact area. I think we'll see more of that, and the bridge will become more important as more people live downtown."

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