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VOL. 41 | NO. 26 | Friday, June 30, 2017

Road rage

Battle lines drawn in effort to reduce 8th Avenue S. to 3 lanes

By Linda Bryant

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A possible reconfiguration of a 3-mile portion of Eighth Avenue South between Gale Lane in the Berry Hill/Melrose area and the roundabout at Music City Center (Korean Veterans Boulevard) has sparked heated debate among neighbors.

The battle pits those who see the reconfiguration as progress with bike lanes and safety measures against those – like Citizens Against 8th Avenue Gridlock – who envision more cars and additional overflow traffic.

The reconfiguration includes changing the thoroughfare from four lanes to three and adding buffered bike lanes and a center turn lane. The busy road, often used by downtown commuters from suburban Oak Hill, Forest Hills and Brentwood to avoid I-65, has grown more congested as Nashville’s growth has skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, neighborhoods adjoining the corridor in the Melrose, Berry Hill, Woodland-in-Waverly, Waverly-Belmont, 12South and Breeze Hill areas have exploded with residential growth and density, bringing throngs of new residents.

Some who are for the reconfiguration plan are alarmed by the lack of safety measures on the road and would like to see portions of the corridor changed to make room for more residential uses such as walking and biking to nearby businesses, retails stores and restaurants.

Proponents of the plan say the street has become much more than a traditional thoroughfare meant to move traffic swiftly, that it has become an extension of their inner-city neighborhood.

And because of that, some say Eighth Avenue South should now be able to accommodate ways of getting around other than by cars – bicycles, pedestrians and public transit users included.

To bolster their argument, proponents give examples of similar, successful projects in places such as Seattle, Washington and Charlotte, North Carolina. They cite facts and statistics that show the amount of accidents and fatalities increasing on Eighth Avenue South and say the future of transportation in the city will be less dependent on individual vehicles.

Dead set against it

Those opposed to the plan mean business.

“Don’t Shut Down 8th Ave!” signs are posted along 8th & Wedgewood by upset neighboring business owners who feel like the proposed road change will only make traffic worse.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

They have produced yard signs that dot the Eighth Avenue South corridor, have organized community meetings, generated a Change.org petition with more than 2,900 electronic signatures and are encouraging opponents to contact a long roster of elected officials – from Gov. Bill Haslam to Mayor Megan Barry to all Metro Council members and elected and appointed officials in the City of Berry Hill.

“Multiple studies have indicated that lane reductions of this nature only work well on streets with fewer than 20,000 vehicles per day,” says Gabriel Smith, CEO of CEadvisory at 2510 8th Avenue South and organizer of Citizens Against 8th Avenue Gridlock, an organized group of opponents that includes business owners, residents and commuters.

“Eighth Avenue had 21,000 vehicles per day back in 2014, and traffic has increased significantly since then,” Smith continues. “We are concerned that traffic on Eighth will be reduced to a crawl and that overflow traffic will be pushed to the residential areas surrounding it.

“Eighth is also an important city bus route, which will back up traffic even further without a lane for passing stopped busses. It is an important alternative for I-65 when it is gridlocked due to accidents or construction.

“Nearly everyone understands that this is a terrible plan as soon as they hear about it. We’ve been actively speaking with members of the community and are finding that roughly nine out of ten oppose this change.”

John McBride, owner of Blackbird Studios, a well-known recording studio in Berry Hill, doesn’t mince words when it comes to his disdain for the potential changes.

“I live on Franklin Pike, and I believe this is the worst idea I have seen out of the City of Nashville,” McBride offers. “To make Franklin Pike two lanes from Berry Road to Korean Vets Boulevard would cripple the local businesses, cause massive congestion for residents, and all other drivers, and cause people to lose faith in their local government.

“This is a terrible idea. I’d prefer eight lanes.”

Janet Schreibman, owners of Brentwood-based Schreibman Creative Services, is upset about the plan as a longtime commuter.

“Residing on the Davidson County edge of Brentwood near the intersection of Franklin Road and Old Hickory Boulevard, my family and neighbors use Franklin Road as a primary thoroughfare when heading north, particularly when I-65 experiences crippling congestion – which is becoming exceedingly more frequent,” Schriebman explains.

“Franklin Road between Woodmont and Wedgewood already has serious traffic issues which are exacerbated during rush hour in both directions. I can only imagine how much more this problem will increase once the high-rise residences currently under construction on Franklin Road are occupied, many with multiple-vehicle families.

“To me, reducing vehicle traffic to two lanes in order to accommodate bike lanes is not the answer.”

Not so fast

Smith and many opponents say they believe they are in the majority, but gauging public sentiment is difficult at this point in the debate.

When The Ledger asked for input from the opposition’s group’s Facebook page we received many forceful responses detailing reasons for opposition.

But many emails from diehard proponents came in from people who said they have formidable support.

Included in the responses for supporters were emails from people who had switched from con to pro after reading details of the plan. Some say they believe that the “pros” are in the majority.

“When I first read about the Eighth Avenue plan, my gut feeling was against it,” says area resident Phillip Granke. “However, after considering what the experts have to say, I trust them and understand how the plan will have minimal improvements to traffic.

“The real reason for the ‘road diet’ is to create a neighborhood environment for the rapidly increasing number of Eighth Avenue residents. At the very worst, the plan is only paint on the ground and could be quickly reversed if necessary. So, let’s trust the experts and give it a go.”

A “road diet” is a technique in transportation planning in which the number of travel lanes and/or effective width of the road is reduced in order to achieve systemic improvements.

Michael Graziano, a resident of the Battlemont neighborhood, between Woodmont and Battlefield, who commutes via bicycle on Eighth Avenue South to his office on Craighead Avenue, agrees with Granke.

“I suspect you will receive a great deal of input from the anti-plan contingent,” Graziano writes. “There’s a small-but-vocal chorus, who are stridently opposed to the plan. At the end of the day their resistance seems, to me, to boil down to the fact that they cannot bear the thought of a moment’s inconvenience to accommodate others who don’t share their apparent, and perhaps even unconscious, disdain for pedestrians, cyclists and, most importantly, change.

“In their minds because Eighth Avenue was originally defined as a U.S. Highway it should still look and function like a U.S. Highway.”

Like Graziano, area resident Collin Brown says he believes some opponents don’t realize that many of the areas adjoining Eighth Avenue South are fast-growing neighborhoods with young families and residents who want to be able to walk or bike safely down the portions of the street.

“Many years ago, Eighth Avenue/Franklin Road was a highway. Then, I-65 was constructed, and now it’s a part of the 12th South/Melrose Community,” Brown points out.

“This neighborhood wants to feel connected; people want to be able to walk, to bike, to enjoy the benefits of the neighborhood on foot and up close. The huge number of commuters now cutting through Eighth Avenue for the morning and afternoon commutes greatly decreases the neighborhood feeling in the community.

“Nashville needs to address its transportation problem, and we cannot allow congestion on Eighth Avenue to be a reason not to develop our roads in a manner that favors the local communities surrounding these roads,” Brown says. “The commuter traffic fragments the neighborhood, while bringing significant noise and pollution to the area.”

Brown calls the proposed changes “an excellent plan to create a more vibrant, walkable and enjoyable neighborhood surrounding Eighth Avenue.”

Businesses react

Several small business owners on Eighth Avenue South, including Zanie’s Comedy Night Club, Gruhn Guitars, Douglas Corner Cafe, Flip, Pour House Nashville, Urban Juicer and American Motor Sports, are actively opposed to the bike lanes portion of the plan. At the same time, they are generally supportive of some of the other proposed changes.

“Say No to Gridlock” signs are seen along 8th Ave. South near Wedgewood Ave. outside businesses that are not happy with the idea of taking away lanes to add a center turn lane as well as possible bike lanes.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

“We all want a safer Eighth Avenue,” says Smith of CEadvisory. “We are in favor of crosswalks, sidewalk improvements and speed-calming measures. Choking traffic down to two travel lanes, however, is simply not appropriate for a major corridor with as much traffic as Eighth Avenue.”

Smith says more and more businesses are joining the opposition as word gets out.

But some other businesses are committed to the plan, including Craft Brewed, ML Rose restaurants, Zolli Koffee and David Mangum, an attorney with an office on Eighth Avenue South.

“I’m headed into my fifth summer at my location and, each year more and more folks are trying to walk through our neighborhood,” says Zollie Wilson, owner of Zolli Koffee at 701 8th Ave. S. “I support the redesign because I see people – customers, residents and tourists – struggling to cross the street.

“I feel the redesign will make walking and biking safer and more attractive to people and they might choose to walk four blocks instead of drive.”

Wilson says he’s a little surprised by the strong backlash to the proposed lane reduction.

“I think (opponents) don’t understand the benefits of this project from a safety or ambience view,” he explains. “Any business with outdoor seating along the corridor will enjoy having the bike lane buffer between cars and customers. While three lanes will reduce the number of cars that can get through during rush hour, I think more of those cars will be on our street to visit our businesses and less cars using it as an alternative to the interstate.

“Additionally, the people in the cars will be able to notice more of the quirks and businesses in each of the neighborhoods that help make them special.”

Austin Ray, owner of ML Rose Craft Beer & Burgers at 2535 8th Ave. S., is a committed supporter.

“As both a neighbor and the owner of three neighborhood-based establishments in Eighth Avenue /Melrose, I am supportive of planning that considers walkability as well as cars,” Ray says. “Eighth Avenue South is clearly a dangerous place to walk or ride a bicycle. To me, doing nothing to help the current situation is not an option.

“When you look at other parts of town, you’ll see if you provide great retail and restaurants, plus the ability to walk, bike and drive, something really amazing happens in every case,” Ray adds. “You achieve a sense of place where people want to be, where they want to get out of their cars.”

Safety and what’s next

Nora Kern, executive director of Walk/Bike Nashville, says she’s primarily concerned about what she sees as escalating safety issues with the Eighth Avenue South corridor.

“Over the past five years, there have been 325 injured, 800 crashes and three people killed,” Kern notes. “We can’t have people getting killed. We see in other cities where similar measures have been adopted (for) as much as a 50 percent reduction in crashes.”

Walk/Bike Nashville, a non-profit organization that promotes walkable and bikeable solutions in Nashville, has conducted 1-mile “tours” of portions of Eighth Avenue South to illustrate how treacherous certain parts of the road are.

“People just aren’t aware of how many people get injured on the street, and they have never walked it,” she says, adding that some people who took the tour in April “changed their perspective” and became proponents.

Joe Baker, city manager of Berry Hill, says many people don’t realize that the timeline for any changes, which was originally slated for 2017, has been changed to 2018.

“People think there’s this big urgency, and they have to stop it and stop it now,” Baker explains. “But now there’s more time for meetings and education and more time for people to have input. It should help [ease conflict.]”

Portions of Berry Hill, one of five satellite cities in Davidson County, are on Eighth Avenue South. The city was a catalyst for making changes to the Berry Hill portion of the street. It received a federal Transportation Improvement Plan grant of $124,000 to study making improvements and held design meetings in 2016 to get input from business owners and residents.

Baker said those who participated in the early meetings submitted preferences for changes to the road. “Over twice as many who submitted responses chose the three-lane option,” he says, adding that the Berry Hill Board of Commissioners also endorsed the three-lane option.

Even though there were public meetings, many people still weren’t aware of the proposed changes until April. That’s when another round of meetings concerning the portion of Eighth Avenue South from Wedgewood Avenue to the roundabout near the Music City Center began.

And then the backlash caught fire.

Metro Councilman Colby Sledge says he’s working directly with business owners and planning education meetings that will be attended by Metro Planning.

“I just want everyone to be working off the same set of data and facts before we move forward,” Sledge adds. “A subtraction in a lane could mean, to some people, a loss of access and a loss of business, and that’s understandable. My goal is to protect everyone in the corridor, whether that’s a driver, a biker or a pedestrian.”

Craig Owensby, public information officer with Metro Planning, says a professional study for the Berry Hill section of Eighth Avenue South is completed and can be viewed at www.nashville.gov/Planning-Department/Transportation/8th-Avenue-South-Multimodal-Study.aspx. A study for the upper section, from Wedgewood Avenue to the roundabout will continue through the summer.

Smith says the Citizens Against 8th Avenue Gridlock group will “keep working hard on getting the word out to the community about the facts behind this plan. Meetings both with officials and members of the community are ongoing.”

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