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WASHINGTON DRIVE INCHING ALONG

by Daniel Schere

daniel@yesweekly.com | @Daniel_Schere

Washington Drive in High Point is one of those streets that you can tell once thrived but with time has become quieter, and largely ignored by those who do not live or work nearby. The low electrical wiring and abandoned buildings tell the story, but infrastructure repair projects to stimulate the neighborhood are getting underway over the next couple of weeks.

Crews began the process Monday of replacing a 113-year-old water line between Penn-Griffin School and N. Centennial Street.

“What we were really worried about is that we would disturb that 12-inch line to the point where it broke,” engineering services director Keith Pugh told the Washington Drive Business Association on Jan 7.

Running concurrently with the water project will be the replacement of the sewer line, which is almost as old, beginning next Monday. While those two projects are going on, the electric department will be installing a conduit for additional lighting along the road, which will involve replacing parts of the sidewalk in order to allow it to run underground.

Pugh said portions of the water line will be isolated in order for sewage to bypass the area and electric service is not expected to be disrupted. However water will be cut off at times. He said the hope is to have the new sidewalks completed by Sept. 1.

Washington Drive was the center of activity for High Point’s African American community up through the 1960s and was home to a number of churches, hotels, schools and entertainment venues. The adjacent neighborhood was jazz great John Coltrane’s home for the first 17 years of his life, where he attended Penn-Griffin School for the Arts. Penn-Griffin is still there, but there are far fewer businesses now.

An area plan adopted in December 2008 as part of High Point’s Core City Plan points to several historic landmarks like the Kilby Hotel, the Ritz Theatre and John Coltrane’s family home at 118 Underhill St. The first phase of the plan calls for rehabilitating those buildings as well as adding a park and working toward crime prevention strategies.

A second project that the city of High Point is likely to undertake during the next two years will be to clean up sunken areas where the railroad tracks run parallel to the road. Pugh said this has gradually eroded due to runoff from the street, and the project will be completed as a partnership between the city, the North Carolina Railroad and Norfolk Southern.

“If you walk out and take a good look at that, the banks along that cut section are eroding pretty badly, and we’ve got gophers and everything else that’s trying its best to take everything out of there,” he said.

Pugh said the city will attempt to resolve the issues with the water that is seeping into the trench while the NC Railroad will likely build a short retaining wall to insulate the tracks. Norfolk Southern will be responsible for drainage at track level.

“We’re hoping to have planning and design going on this year with potential construction of those improvements starting next year,” he said.

In addition to issues with erosion, the area by the tracks has become overgrown with Kudzu and several neighbors have expressed concern about feral cats and rodents making their way into the trench. Business association president Charity Belton said rodents are common whenever the railroad is undergoing maintenance.

“I mean we’ve got some human sized,” she said.

The group seemed receptive to both projects and discussed plans for a “grand opening” once all of the improvements were made. Resident Kimberly Johnson compared the temporary inconvenience to New Yorkers who lived near ground zero.

“They still managed to live around the area conducive to what was going on,” she said. “So don’t let this be a negative.”

Pugh said he, like the residents of Washington Drive, is excited to finally see plans come to fruition.

“It has been a long time getting to this point, and we want to make sure that when we walk away that we leave seeing what we expected to see,” he said. “And we did it in a manner that caused the least amount of disruption possible given the circumstances of what we have to accomplish.”

As the meeting drew to a close, Belton urged members to stay committed and alert property owners about the changes that would be taking place within the coming weeks. !

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