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Artistic components downplayed in Martin Luther King Jr. Drive improvements

by Jordan Green

jordan@yesweekly.com

A design review panel appointed by Winston-Salem City Council to vet major corridor upgrades around downtown gets its first crack at the task with a $3.1 million project on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive.

The Creative Corridors Design Review Committee, comprised of architects and community leaders appointed by city council, is charged with grading the city’s plans for a section of the street from Business 40 to US Highway 52 based on how well it incorporates elements of sustainability, artfulness, iconic appearance and connectivity. The corridor includes a so-called “focal zone” between 3rd and 5th streets that is supposed to include “refined materials, planting and integrated art,” according to materials produced for the Creative Corridors Coalition.

Committee members wrapped up a recent meeting with a high degree of uncertainty over exactly what combination of landscaping, lighting and art features is being funded — in other words, what exactly it is that they’re being asked to grade.

Committee member Jimmy Norwood, an architect who has attended a number of community input meetings, said he understood that the full budget covers a list of items that include sidewalks, fencing, lighting, trees and other landscaping, but not metal history sign panels, lighted banner artwork, bus stops and benches. The budget includes $2.5 million already secured from the federal government and a 20 percent local match that will have to come from some combination of private funds raised by the Creative Corridors Coalition and public money allocated by city council.

Greg Errett, a planning development coordinator with the Winston-Salem Transportation Department, who is the city staff member with the most direct knowledge of the project, said in response to Norwood: “From the cost estimate that we’ve had so far it would minimally touch a couple” of the public art items, “but it wouldn’t cover everything that’s on that list.”

Committee member Dianne Caesar, who is the departing executive director of Winston-Salem Delta Fine Arts on New Walkertown Road, expressed misgivings about the process.

“It bothers me to see that some of the elements we are trying so hard to include in this project are those that are shuffled to the bottom or either thought to be not important,” she said. “I just don’t want to see it be a guinea pig…. I think we need to be definite about what we want and what we recommend and what we see that’s going to happen in this area.”

Committee member Marty Marion, an architect, observed, “The very things that appear not to be funded are the arts-related components.”

Marion also lamented that lack of right-of-way along the street prevented incorporation of bike lanes. Among the criteria from which the committee members are charged with judging the project is whether the design enhances connectivity between neighborhoods and addresses “mobility, economy, access, comfort and beauty.”

Errett acknowledged after the meeting that the discussion about what items have been funded had been confusing, but provided a list of items that are paid for by the $3.1 million budget that was at odds with Norwood’s articulation. He ticked them off: Sidewalk construction, brick surfaces for shrubs and perennials, replacement of soil along the road edge, a bus stop, street furniture, trashcans, deciduous trees, understory trees, median trees, double light pole replacements, overhead fixtures, bollard lighting, bridge lights, bridge enhancement along abutments, metal history sign panels and lighted banner artwork. What remains unfunded, he said, is a lighted monument visible from Business 40 that announces arrival in Winston-Salem, along with two art features identified as “environmental artwork” and “artwork ‘quilt’ painted/stained.”

Errett said area residents and professionals who have attended public input meetings have prioritized safety and functional features such as fencing and lighting over aesthetic aspects such as public art and parks. “More meat and potatoes,” he said. “That seems to be what they desire.”

Conceptual features such as a wooded strip with a meandering sidewalk and a circular park in front of Union Station that are part of the renderings for the street improvement project will have to wait for additional funding and in the case of the former, for land acquisition.

Errett estimated that if the project were to include all the features considered in conceptual renderings it would cost $4.2 million. He told committee members that staff wants to advertise the project for bid in the spring. Errett said the public input and design development phases are essentially complete, and the only thing holding up the project is the committee’s review.

Assistant City Manager Greg Turner said staff is waiting to see what amount of private funds the Creative Corridors Coalition raises before turning to the city with a request for the remaining monies. He added that funding for any features people want included “in the overall project from the beginning” must be “resolved by March if you’re going to go out to bid in April.”

Councilman Dan Besse predicted that the council would be reluctant to allocate additional funds for public art.

“My general impression overall of the Creative Corridors initiative has been that the organization has recognized where it’s talking about aesthetic enhancement over and beyond the functional and landscaping issues that an element of private fundraising would be required to make anything significant happen.”

He added that the council and he in particular have other priorities.

“This is just one of these years where it’s going to be really tough to find pots of money for artistic enhancements,” he said. “We’re struggling to avoid service cuts. I’m personally trying to find funds to make service improvements for things like the bus system.”

East Ward Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the area covered in the corridor improvement plan, said he plans to lobby his fellow council members to approve the local match.

“It’s going to come down to what is going to be financially feasible,” he said. “I have not personally seen what the outstanding number would be to do all of it.”

Still left to determine are the design and content of the metal art banners. Creative Corridors Executive Director Russell DuBois said he views that as a decision that should be left up to people who live and work in the immediate vicinity of the corridor.

Some have commented during community input meetings that the street’s namesake, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., should be honored. Caesar suggested during the design review committee meeting that Columbian Heights should be commemorated as a historic African-American professional neighborhood. So far, neither the Creative Corridors Coalition nor the city has established a committee to give members of the immediate community a voice in the design and content of the metal art banners. DuBois told YES! Weekly that anyone who wants to have input on the inclusion of artful components in the street improvement project or the specific content of the art pieces is encouraged to contact him at russ@creativecorridors.org or 336.793.0477.

“It’s sort of in a gestational period,” he said. “I’ve had some meetings with pastors. I asked them to give me names of one or two of your parishioners, and asked them to come to meetings and represent your church.”

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