Decision to close interchange in downtown Winston-Salem divides institutional players

by Jordan Green

When the NC Department of Transportation completes renovation of a mile-long section of Business 40 through downtown Winston-Salem in 2020, one interchange will have been eliminated.

Traffic currently moves on and off of Business 40 from downtown and historic Salem to the south through complementing sets of one-way streets: Liberty and Marshall as southbound arteries and Main and Cherry as northbound veins.

“From a safety standpoint that’s not really safe because get a of lot of exit and entrance ramps, people trying to get on and people trying to get off and you’ve only got about 20 feet to do that,” Karen Simon, a Florida consultant working with NC DOT on the project, told a citizens working group at the Milton Rhodes Arts Center last week. “You don’t have much room. And it’s really difficult to do during peak hours. You’ve got a lot of congestion. You’ve got 70,000 cars driving that section a day. It’s really not what it was built for in the ’50s.”

While many agree that the number of interchanges needs to be reduced to improve safety on Business 40, one dissenting voice is Milton Rhodes, the president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and the namesake of the arts center. Rhodes said he has seen no evidence to indicate there is a high number of accidents related to the number of interchanges.

“We need to keep all our intersections open,” he said in an interview. “We need to keep all our exits open. We don’t need to close down any of our access or egress. This town needs to be connected in every way possible and the more we shut down certain access points the more disparate and distant we get as neighbors.”

NC DOT is currently weighing the decision of whether to decommission the interchange at Main and Liberty, which feeds traffic to the city’s government complex — city and county buildings, state and federal courts and the jail — its counterpart at Cherry and Marshall, connecting to the restaurants and theaters that comprise Winston-Salem’s cultural heart. Project leaders say DOT will make the decision based on public input and the findings of a historic review. In the meantime, the various institutional constituencies that comprise downtown are aligning on either side for what promises to be a vigorous tussle.

Staff of the city’s transportation department is leaning in one direction, but the final call goes to their state counterparts.

“To be honest, we’re concerned about the Cherry/Marshall option because it goes through the heart of downtown, and we’re trying to make it as pedestrian friendly as possible,” Greg Errett, planning development coordinator for Winston-Salem DOT, remarked during a breakout session at the bridge and design working group meeting hosted by NC DOT on April 25. “We don’t want a lot of tractor-trailers coming through. It tears up the pavement.”

At the end of the meeting, John Larson, vice president of restoration at Old Salem Museum & Gardens, buttonholed a state transportation official and expressed concern that the decision had already been made in deference to the city’s wishes. Larson said Old Salem is part of a consortium of institutions that have developed a position paper in favor of what’s known as the Cherry Street/Marshall Street alternative. UNC School of the Arts is also a member of the consortium.

Closure of the Marshall Street off-ramp would funnel southbound traffic from Business 40 onto Liberty Street, which becomes Old Salem Road as it continues along the western perimeter of Old Salem before reaching a roundabout. South Main Street picks up from that point and continues past the Gateway Fitness Center and UNC School of the Arts.

Reached for comment after the meeting UNC School of the Arts Director of External Affairs Jim DeChristo outlined several reasons the institutions favor the Cherry/Marshall interchange.

“One is the new Salem Creek Connector, which will become one of the primary entrance points and access points for our campus,” he said. “That is very close to Liberty/Main. We felt that’s a little redundant. Another is that the Strollway comes down along Main, and in the future that would be an excellent streetcar connection from our campus to downtown. And Cherry/Marshall has the only obvious connection to Wake Forest [University], the [Lawrence Joel Veterans] Coliseum and those institutions to the north. For those reasons, we feel like the school would be best served with Cherry/Marshall as the exit point.”

Rhodes is one of the few institutional players north of Business 40 who is part of the consortium of museums and education institutions on the south side who favor the Cherry/Marshall interchange. He said the arts center, the Stevens Center, the Benton Convention Center and the nascent Theater District all depend on healthy access from Business 40.

Larson echoed several of Rhodes’ and DeChristo’s points in an interview after the meeting, adding that he is concerned that the area around Old Salem will become overwhelmed with traffic if Liberty Street becomes the primary southbound interchange. “The last thing we want in this area is ambient driving traffic,” he said. “What we don’t particularly want is to be a pass-through area.”

Larson envisions increased connectivity along the Main/Liberty corridor. In addition to a streetcar running along the Strollway, he looks forward to restoring the streets to two-way traffic and freeing up land for new development to create an urban streetscape — all of which would become possible with the closure of the on and off ramps.

“The concern that we have, Old Salem in particular, is that in the 1950s this road was laid in place,” Larson said in reference to Business 40. “Everyone loves highways. In the 1950s highways were all the rage. There was a price that was paid for that. It involved a dividing line between the north and south sides of the city. That was exacerbated later with [Highway] 52 dividing the city from east to west. As a result of that, we are a city divided. It’s unfortunate, but the opportunity has come to us with the rethinking of Business 40 to think about how this city is to function, from an automotive perspective, but also in the pedestrian and associative perspective to knit this city back together.”

The Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership and the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce, which represent constituencies on both sides of Business  40, have convened a Business 40 task force to evaluate the economic development impact of the two alternatives. The task force is awaiting traffic modeling data from NC DOT for its study.

“The Brookstown area committee is a compilation of property owners that are south of 40 where Brookstown [Avenue] and Liberty [Street] come together, and they’re looking at it in terms of connectivity to downtown from a north-south direction and traffic to their respective organizations,” said Mark Dunnagan, a vice president at Frank L. Blum Construction who chairs the Business 40 task force. “They’re looking at it in terms of their properties, as they should. There’s been a lot lot of discussion about how that area grows over the years, how the closure or not closure of those interchanges is going to provide developable space. These are two different groups. The committee I chair I would say has a broader membership. There are members of the Brookstown committee that are on the Business 40 task force. They are providing input to our committee as well.”

Mayor Allen Joines said he personally and the city council as a whole have not taken a position on the matter, while acknowledging that city transportation staff favors the Main Street/ Liberty Street alternative. The mayor said he understands that Milton Rhodes, president and CEO of the Arts Council of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County and namesake of the arts center, favors the Cherry Street/Marshall Street alternative.

Joines said he is waiting to get input from the arts center, the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, and that he expects the council to eventually pass a resolution in support of one or the other alternative.

Mike Penney, the project development engineer with NC DOT, said no decision has been made and his agency has no preference. Emphasizing that public opinion will have to be weighed against historic impact, Penney noted that the area affected by the project affects seven historic districts, two historic cemeteries and at least 14 historic properties.

He said he expects the state to make a decision following completion of a required document called a Finding of No Significant Impact in late 2014.

“The ultimate worst-case scenario is they weigh out equally,” Penney said. “Then you start splitting hairs to get a preferred alternative. One hopes there’s enough difference to get a clear opinion.”

Where’s the iconic feature for the city of arts and innovation?

While the choice of which interchange to decommission looms on the horizon, a decision point on another part of the project is more imminent. The first order of business when NC DOT awards a design-build contract for the project in the summer of 2016 will be to replace the Peters Creek Parkway bridge and interchange near BB&T Ballpark, preceding the temporary closure of the downtown section of Business 40.

Project leaders, including NC DOT staff and consultants tasked, citizen volunteers with the bridge and design working group with reviewing renderings of several design alternatives for the bridge. Volunteers at each table — about eight groups — separately reviewed the renderings and then reported back their preferences. They unanimously chose a street-level design featuring brick sidewalks in a herringbone design, planters to create a barrier between pedestrians and vehicles and traditional streetlamps over a product known as “acorn lighting” that many people felt would create “light pollution.”

On the side-view design, volunteers gave mixed feedback. Some preferred a single arch; others, a double one. Some liked brick walls that would complement the ballpark; others wanted stamped stone. Most agreed that the tobacco leaves on the medallions adorning the side of the bridge should be replaced by a series of emblems denoting the areas connected by the bridge — for example, a dancer to represent the arts center and a medical symbol for the hospitals.

The working group also considered a design feature comprised of intersecting arches that create a dome effect that NC DOT officials and their hired consultants call a “canopy.” The nonprofit Creative Corridors Coalition, which is leading a parallel public-input process for the Business 40 project, calls them “twin arches.” Reaction from workshop participants ranged from outright opposition to ambivalence. Members of one group worried that motorists would be imperiled by giant icicles crashing down from the arches in the wake of a winter storm.

Larry Snively, a partner with Acanthus Architecture, suggested doing away with streetlamps and hanging lights from the arches instead.

“As it’s rendered now, it seems not very integrated with the traditionalist bridge,” he said during the meeting. “It’s of a different language. It’s like it’s fighting it.”

In a document released in October, Creative Corridors Coalition called for the appearance of the new Peters Creek Parkway Bridge to be raised “from good to iconic, as a main gateway to downtown.” The nonprofit, which employs an executive director and boasts a board of directors comprised of local dignitaries, community leaders and business persons, was created through National Endowment for the Arts grant pursued at the instigation of Milton Rhodes, the arts council president. The goal of Creative Corridors is to improve the city’s quality of life by transforming its roadways, landscape and environment, and by creating iconic features that distinguish Winston-Salem as a city of arts and innovation.

Creative Corridors Coalition has also floated the idea of placing the arches at the intersection of the planned Salem Creek Connector and US Highway 52, which is also considered a gateway to downtown. The arches have been priced at $3.5 million and Creative Corridors Coalition has so far struggled to raise the money through private donations.

Asked by a member of the bridge and design working group to explain how NC DOT interacts with Creative Corridors on the project, consultant Karen Simon responded, “It’s not always been seamless. It sounds a lot easier. You know, we’ve had some struggles along the way, but we’ve learned. And we’re all trying to work together.”

Simon’s response prompted a rejoinder from Jumetta Posey, another consultant hired by NC DOT, who alluded to the role of the Federal Highway Administration in the project.

“I want to make this clear: They’re two separate processes,” Posey said. “What Creative Corridors Coalition did is wonderful and we applaud that, but as a federal process we can only look at them as an additional stakeholder in the process, no different than the chamber of commerce or Wake Forest Baptist Hospital or any other stakeholder. So we invite them to be a part of the process and, thankfully, they have been part of that process. But what they’ve reviewed can in no way determine what our working group does.”

Milton Rhodes, who co-chairs the fundraising committee on the Creative Corridors board of directors, praised NC DOT as he made an early exit from the meeting.

“I’m impressed with how thoroughly they’ve gone about their job and how the two concomitant views — one, federal and state DOT, and two, Creative Corridors — seem to be coming together at certain points,” Rhodes said. “Those points are the character of the space — just the look and the way it would feel. I like the distinctiveness of what they’ve come up with for us as the city of arts and innovation. The challenge is to come up with a modernist and contemporary effort while reflecting the traditional roots from the village of Salem. What I hear is the blend of the two. It’s not either or; it’s both and.”