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City Council, May 22

Council split on bike and pedestrian paths around Hampton Park
Support for new Fire Department chief not unanimous
Marc Knapp

We were surprised. The City’s plan for bike and pedestrian ways around Hampton Park seemed to have popular support. The City was keen on the development and last night, staff from a number of departments waxed on its virtues. So did about 20 or so members of the neighborhoods surrounding the park. But it was not enough. The plan almost certainly would have been voted down if not for the intervention of the Mayor. Probably sensing defeat, he suggested a compromise to give City staff time to work on a better plan.

Could there be a better plan? Six of the Council members present last night thought so. But does there need to be a better plan? Two Council members were absent last night. Council member Moody is head of the Traffic and Transportation committee which has endorsed the plan. He certainly would have voted for it if present. The position of Council member Reigel, also absent last night, is not possible to gauge. But if he supports it, and other Council members don’t change their position on the issue, the City need make little or no change to its plan to get it passed.

Safety of pedestrians was the issue that aroused Council members. The closure of one of the two lanes of the Mary Murray Drive around the park was well and good. But to split this closed lane into a 5 foot wide path for bikes and a 4 foot path for pedestrians, and expect all to walk, bike and drive in the same direction was fantasy. It also was fertile ground for cultivating an accident. Indeed, there was no law that could force pedestrians to walk in a single direction on a pedestrian way.

There were 10 or citizens, including me, who spoke against the City’s plan. Generally most were concerned about safety and suggested the present road system be maintained but enhanced with better signs, crossings, signals and enforcement. They asked whether any traffic engineer had endorsed and signed off on the project and were told no. Presently the two lanes of the Mary Murray Drive are open to automobile traffic but traffic on each lane moves in the same direction. The road is closed on Tuesdays, Thursdays and part of Friday to vehicular traffic.

Council member Gregorie was the first to speak against the City’s plan and to raise the issue of safety. Pedestrians walking in the same direction of vehicular traffic and with no effective barrier between them, bicycles and automobiles was contrary to all that he had been taught. The theme was taken up by Council members Waring, Lewis and Alexander. Council member Waring suggested the creation of a raised sidewalk for pedestrians but the Mayor indicated that this would be an expensive proposition particularly as the City would be committed to spending on drainage. Council member Alexander was skeptical generally about bike paths in the City, though specifically of that along St Andrews Boulevard in West Ashley. It was dangerous and used only by the hardy bicyclist. Other used the sidewalks of the boulevard.

Council members White and Mitchell also expressed concern about the safety issue and showed little support for the City’s proposal.

Council member Seekings was the most voluble of the Council members in support of the City’s plan. He noted the array of people and entities that supported the plan – the City departments, Chief Mullen, Neighborhood Groups, biking groups, the Historic Charleston Foundation, the Preservation Society and members of the public, many of whom spoke before the Council. He spoke of democracy and the will of the people – which in his view was for the City’s Plan. He was supported by Council members Wilson, Wagner and Hallman, all members of the Committee of Traffic and Transportation.

Council member Lewis noted that if democracy was to be invoked, he had a petition opposing the City Plan with 50 signatures of members of the Community surrounding the park. This would compel him to vote against the City’s plan.

An element of urgency was given to the debate by the plan of the County to resurface the Drive. If some decision were not made, it may be years before resurfacing could again be considered. Reflecting this concern, those Council members opposed to the City plan supported it with the amendment suggested by the Mayor – that the repaving is undertaken but that no striping is undertaken i.e. there would be no delineation of the bike and pedestrian paths. Also, staff was to look at the plan again and in the light of last night’s hearing, make it better.

There was another issue that emerged from last night’s meeting. It was clear that a number of Council members are hostile to the City’s generous endorsement of bike paths. Council member Alexander spoke about that created on St Andrews Boulevard, its infrequent use and its danger. Conversations with other Council members during a break in the Council meeting showed skepticism with other bike paths such as along Morrison Drive –used only by the hardy and brave but nevertheless dangerous. One Council member opined that small, vigorous and outspoken groups of cyclists had an oversized impact on City policy. We’d also add that they seem to have penetrated the City’s two main preservation groups, Historic Charleston Foundation and the Preservation Society. Their support last night for the City’s proposed changes at Hampton Park takes them well beyond their traditional role and purpose.

Support for new Fire Department Chief not unanimous
Council voted last night on the appointment of Karen Brack to head the City’s Fire Department. Interestingly, two Council members, Lewis and Alexander voted against her appointment. We asked Council member Lewis later why he voted nay – she was not the best person, he said. Council member Alexander said much more, later in the Council session. Following on a presentation by the acting Fire Chief, Council member Alexander referred to his earlier vote and gave two reasons for it. The City had promised a strategic plan for the development of the Fire Department and despite the length time between now and the time it was agreed to, he had not seen it. Secondly, he had been given little about the qualifications and background of the proposed new Fire Chief. Considering these things, he was in no position to make a decision. Ideally he would have asked the new Chief for her view on the Strategic plan and its implementation. But this was not possible. His only option was to vote no!
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