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Interstate junction plan has detractors

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By STEVE PATTERSON

The Times-Union

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A major, long-planned state road project that includes rebuilding the junction of Interstates 95 and 10 is meeting unexpected challenges from Jacksonville's civic leadership.

Although the project was encouraged for years by elected officials and community figures, new concerns emerged this summer that the Florida Department of Transportation's plan could overpower and fragment neighborhoods near the interstates, particularly the Brooklyn area near downtown.

A transportation consultant financed by the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission concluded in June that state plans are "gobbling up" blocks of Brooklyn real estate and could produce neighborhood streets that are "too large [and] heavy-handed" and "big, but not great, not even good."

City Councilman Reggie Fullwood introduced resolutions Tuesday asking the Transportation Department to rethink ways the planned roads, whose total price may top $180 million, can blend in better with their surroundings.

"Nobody is saying totally stop the project," said Fullwood, whose district includes Brooklyn. But he warned "the designs really are not beneficial to the surrounding neighborhood."

But the recent criticism seems ill-timed to state officials, who spent several years and $8.3 million developing their present designs. Interchange construction is scheduled to start in February -- almost imminently, to road planners who have projects on drawing boards as far out as 2025.

"There's no time left on the clock," said Mike Goldman, a Transportation Department spokesman. "We're just not at a position to change the plans. Three or four years ago might have been different."

The department is scheduled to seek contractors' bids for the interchange July 28, the day after Fullwood wants the City Council to vote on the resolutions.

The highway project is a giant undertaking: 17 bridges, 21 ramps, more than five years of construction planned.

Besides rebuilding the interchange, the project will redesign some local streets and dig a series of retention ponds for drainage. The neighborhood roadwork, most notably changing Forest Street into a thoroughfare for accessing the interstates, was intended to dovetail with a project to widen Riverside Avenue near downtown.

The new interchange and local streets were designed to help drivers enter and leave downtown more conveniently.

But the effect on the surrounding neighborhood has proved controversial. This year, the plans reached the attention of a company hired by the JEDC's Downtown Development Authority to plan Brooklyn's redevelopment. An Orlando-based transportation consultant, Walter Kulash, concluded that parts of the highway plan emphasize through-traffic to the detriment of the neighborhood.

One effect of the roadwork, he wrote, would be "the degrading of the pedestrian atmosphere, from the ideal of closely spaced blocks with interesting frontage to the inevitably suburban-style development."

The plans will make Brooklyn a more isolated enclave, with fewer neighborhood roads connected to Forest and Riverside, Kulash noted. Because easy access is considered an asset, that change would damage the neighborhood, he concluded. He suggested a series of changes to the state's plan, including more intersections and on-street parking along Forest and an indefinite stay on plans to enlarge Riverside from five lanes to seven. He also suggested repositioning stormwater ponds to be more scenic and consume less road frontage.

Community figures, including neighborhood organizers from the Riverside-Avondale, North Riverside and Brooklyn areas, have questioned parts of the state's plan.

"I'm not opposed to the roadways, but I'd like to have the best roadway. ... I'd like to not just desecrate neighborhoods," said Diane Kerr, an activist from North Riverside.

Advocates have argued many of the recommendations can be followed with relative ease and little expense.

Despite years of lobbying to see the new roads built, Preston Haskell, a longtime developer and civic leader, said he also wants state officials to consider Kulash's ideas. He said colleagues who went to design sessions for the Brooklyn plan helped convince him there might be practical ways to change the state's plans.

The Transportation Department tried for years to listen to local concerns, but it also has to start building sometime, Goldman said. He said the department already has environmental permits from two agencies, and revising the road plans now could cause the department to lose time and money seeking regulatory approval. Changing the stormwater plans would be particularly hard, he said.

Goldman noted his agency had a whole series of public meetings to show its plans beginning in the 1990s, and revisited its ideas at three points in the project design. But the designs are totally finished now, and it's a bad time to change, he said.

"Our full intent is to go ahead," he said.

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Changes recommended

To help downtown traffic reach the new interchange, state planners want to make Riverside Avenue seven lanes (three each way with turn lanes in the median) between the Acosta Bridge and Forest Street. A consultant for a city-financed Brooklyn development plan suggested eliminating one lane in each direction and building a wider median that could be pared back later if traffic increased. Also suggested: replacing intersecting streets closed by recent construction; on-street parking on the road's north side, with curb extensions at intersections. The parking might be scrapped if traffic increases over time.

steve.pattersonjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4263

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Riverside road designs questioned

by J. Brooks Terry

Staff Writer

As the Florida Department of Transportation continues to overhaul and expand much of Riverside

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This issue is a very important one for the future of urban Jacksonville, especially Brooklyn.

So often decisions and plans are made in a vacuum. When the FDOT was developing these plans, someone from the DDA should have been considering the impact on the urban fabric and layout in Brooklyn. What is the point of a Downtown Master Plan if no one is enforcing it.

Brooklyn has the potential to be the Brickell Avenue (Miami) of Jacksonville or it could become another LaVilla.

It would be so easy for the city to screw up Brooklyn the same way they did LaVilla. All they have to do is say "it's too late to change now". Then Brooklyn will either be an isolated, largely undeveloped, wasteland or a suburban-style office park.

I certainly hope Peyton, council President Elaine Brown, Reggie Fullwood and the other city council members will stop FDOT from proceeding until the consultant's changes are incorporated into the plans. The cost of delaying is a mere fraction of the cost of fixing the problems that will arise if no changes are made. Not to mentioned the lost opportunity to transform Brooklyn into a prime example of an great urban neighborhood.

Great urban development/redevelopment doesn't just happen, it has to be designed and implemented correctly.

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I like the idea of having a wide median on Riverside Ave, instead of 7 lanes. Here's an idea: Why don't they extend the Skyway/Trolley lines to help alleviate traffic and better connect Riverside/Brooklyn to Downtown? And I liked the idea of having a Forest St. ramp, but I just hope they don't make a non-pedestrian highway out of it.

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I was over in Riverside last night and I decided to drive up Oak Street to see, just how many historical significant buildings where in that stretch between Margaret & I-95. Other than the backside of the Presbyterian Church, there aren't any. Everything else is surface parking lots and 1960's-70's style one story commercial buildings.

If and when ever the skyway is extended down Riverside, it would make too much sense to run it under the I-95 bridge (near May St.) and curve it over to Oak and then terminate it, in Five Points/Riverside at Lomax or Margaret Streets. With Riverside growing in residential & commercial density & being Jax's most popular inner city hood, as well as directly connecting it with BCBS, Fidelity, & Haskell and the rest of downtown, this line would easily become the most popular route in the skyway system.

It would also, help increase interest, from developers to buy up a majority of the surface lots and add more housing density to that area.

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Great point Lakelander. Now is the time to get these things planned comprehensively. UDA, in their Brooklyn report, is hesitant, I believe, to suggest skyway extensions so we'll have to speak up soon. I would like to think that we could extend it to Riverside and to the sports complex with a good ridership outcome.

To the master plan and dda comments from vic: There is good momentum for a new master plan. I think with all of the independent stuff happening at the same time, the dda will tie it all together into new mp. Obviously city council leadership is favorable for this with Elaine Brown at the helm and Reggie Fullwood chairing finance.

They need to pull it together, and I'll say this 'til its done:

1. Enforce the Property Maintenance Code

2. USE THE "BUT FOR" RULE

Exciting times downtown.

AA

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What's the reason for the city not enforcing the Property Maintenance Code? Its a shame, that we have allowed buildings like the Brisbee, Florida Life, Baptist (off Church) buildings to decay to what they are today, by leaving them open to the elements.

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From the Daily Record's City Notes...

Legislation to re-evaluate various Riverside street improvements was unanimously recommended for approval by the Council

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Its better late than never. When is the Riverside expansion project expected to be completed? Its been under construction for well over a year now. I don't think I've ever seen a short road project (other than expressways) take so long.

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City re-thinks Riverside Ave. plan

By DAVID BAUERLEIN

The Times-Union

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Before: Land and buildings along the Riverside Avenue project area are shown before the state began demolition toward the widening project. Florida transportation officials say they're convinced six lanes are necessary.

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After: The state has spent about $25 million to buy property along Riverside Avenue, shown from Forest Street looking downtown, and has started work on widening it to six lanes. The Jacksonville City Council is set to vote tonight on having four lanes and saving space for later use, parking or a median.

At a record-setting cost of $25 million, the state Department of Transportation bought and demolished aging buildings in a half-mile stretch of Riverside Avenue, clearing the way for a six-lane boulevard near downtown Jacksonville.

On a per-mile basis, the steep price of property acquisition has made it the most expensive road-widening project in the city's history, the state says.

But now that roughly 25 buildings have bitten the dust and crews are building the wider road, City Council members are questioning whether four-lane Riverside Avenue really needs to be six lanes.

Tonight, the City Council is scheduled to vote on a resolution urging the Transportation Department to keep Riverside Avenue at four lanes and use space for on-street parking or a larger, landscaped median.

Councilman Reggie Fullwood said that will make the road more "neighborhood-friendly," result in new development for the aging Brooklyn neighborhood and still leave the state room to turn some of the median into blacktop if six lanes are needed in the future.

But the state remains convinced six lanes are essential for that part of Riverside Avenue, which runs from the Acosta Bridge to Forest Street. The state would never have paid so much for property just to add on-street parking and landscaped medians, said Aage Schroder, secretary for the department's Northeast Florida district. "That would be folly."

The proposed resolution is part of a late-breaking move by City Council members to challenge how the Transportation Department plans to reconstruct the huge interchange where Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 meet near downtown.

"We're not here to say stop, don't do it," said Trip Stanly, chairman of Riverside Avondale Preservation, which favors approval of Fullwood's resolution. "We're saying stop; let's take one more look at it."

The state intends to start construction of the new interchange, with an estimated cost of $180 million, next February. When finished in about five years, the rebuilt highway junction will have new exit and entrance ramps connecting to Forest Street. Forest Street goes to Riverside Avenue, which feeds into downtown.

The new interchange, combined with the new eight-lane Fuller Warren Bridge, is aimed at eliminating the bottleneck that occurs where drivers merge at the heavily traveled highway junction, which dates back to the 1950s.

Schroder said when the new interchange opens, Forest Street and Riverside Avenue will both gain traffic and need more lanes.

One new lane will pick up at the exit ramp from the Acosta Bridge and go west to Forest Street, where those drivers would turn onto Forest toward the new interchange. Two other lanes would continue west toward the Riverside neighborhood.

Another new lane would start at Forest and go toward downtown, flowing into the on-ramp for the Acosta Bridge. Two other lanes would go east into downtown.

Schroder said that in 1989, the state did a traffic forecast through 2010 for a new Fuller Warren Bridge, the new interchange and Forest Street and Riverside Avenue. He said the forecast showed 42,200 vehicles a day would travel Riverside Avenue just east of Forest Street and 57,500 vehicles a day would be on Riverside Avenue west of the Acosta Bridge. That is well above the capacity of 34,500 vehicles for a four-lane road, he said.

He said state officials knew buying property along Riverside Avenue would be costly but decided in 1994 that there was no way Riverside Avenue could handle the traffic as a four-lane road when it was hooked into the new interchange via Forest Street. In the past decade, the state has been moving forward with the design, permits, right of way acquisition and now construction for a six-lane road.

In 1997 the City Council backed the Jacksonville Transportation Authority's expenditure of $8 million to help the state buy right of way for widening Riverside. Demolition started in late 2000, and road construction began in 2003.

Last year, the city's Downtown Development Authority decided to update its master plan for developing Brooklyn. Walter Kulash, a transportation consultant working on the master plan, recently recommended scaling back the state's road work. Kulash said the road-widening is excessive for an urban neighborhood where people should feel as comfortable walking as they do driving.

"Moving traffic is only one value, and sometimes not even the highest value, of a road," Kulash said.

He said on-street parking is "the gold standard" of parking. Providing it along Riverside Avenue would help attract development to Brooklyn, he said.

The other option he proposes is instead of adding two more lanes to Riverside Avenue, the state could build an extra-wide landscaped median, emphasizing Riverside Avenue and Brooklyn as a "gateway" to downtown. The state's plan currently calls for building a landscaped median with tall palm trees down the middle of Riverside Avenue. In Kulash's recommendation, the width of the median would be increased.

Downtown Development Authority Executive Director Al Battle said he hopes a meeting Wednesday between Kulash and state transportation officials will clear up the conflicting views on traffic needs for Riverside Avenue.

"They may eventually need the lanes," Battle said. "Whether or not they need them today is the question."

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From today's T-U

City Council agenda

A look at some of the items to be considered by the Jacksonville City Council at its 6 p.m. meeting today at City Hall, 117 W. Duval St.

ISSUE: Interchange plans

What it means: Encourages the Florida Department of Transportation not to begin work on the new interchange of Interstates 10 and 95 until the department considers alternatives that some say would be less disruptive. The bill is just a resolution and does not force the department to do anything. FDOT officials have said they'll proceed as planned.

Bill No. 2004-778, 779.

Action: Recommended for approval.

I hope FDOT will not slam the door an making changes. Frankly, this is almost the eleventh hour, but better the eleventh hour than not at all.

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DOT could modify Brooklyn plan

By DAVID BAUERLEIN

The Times-Union

The state Department of Transportation would be willing to relocate its drainage ponds in Jacksonville's Brooklyn neighborhood, a top state official said Wednesday in a meeting with City Hall officials.

But Aage Schroder, secretary of the department's Northeast Florida district, said the state would not agree to buy any more land in Brooklyn, a neighborhood where the state has spent about $25 million to acquire property and clear buildings in a half-mile stretch.

Consultants working on a master plan for Brooklyn have suggested building a "central park" with a three-block-long linear pond instead of the state's two smaller, square-shaped ponds.

"Somebody has got to pay for it," Schroder said of the additional land needed for the proposed park and pond. "I don't think that ought to be the state."

Schroder met with City Councilman Reggie Fullwood, Planning and Development Director Jeannie Fewell and Downtown Development Authority Director Al Battle in a two-hour brain-storming session about City Hall's creation of a master plan for Brooklyn, located near downtown.

The major question on the table was whether the state's ongoing construction of Riverside Avenue between Forest Street and the Acosta Bridge needs six lanes for traffic or could just be four lanes with an extra-wide landscaped median and on-street parking.

Walter Kulash, a transportation consultant working on the Brooklyn master plan, said the state's road-widening will fragment Brooklyn with blacktop, make it harder for pedestrians to walk toward the St. Johns River and is building more lanes than what's needed for traffic.

The City Council passed a resolution Wednesday night in support of Kulash's position, urging the state to redesign the roads with four lanes of traffic.

But Schroder said the state, which has not halted road construction during the talks, is confident based on traffic studies that Riverside Avenue and Forest Street need six lanes. In February, the state will start building a new interchange for the junction of Interstate 10 and Interstate 95 near downtown. The new interchange will connect to Forest Street, making Forest and Riverside Avenue a main gateway into downtown from the highways.

Kulash said Riverside just needs four lanes for future traffic, though he did not present any forecasts disputing the state's prediction. Kulash said the state demolished the buildings along Riverside Avenue to open the property for redevelopment, not for traffic reasons.

"It was urban renewal by road construction," Kulash said.

"That wasn't urban renewal," Schroder responded. "There was great pain in moving these businesses."

Schroder said the state will continue building Riverside Avenue and Forest Street at six lanes unless directed otherwise by the First Coast Metropolitan Planning Organization, a regional transportation planning agency that coordinates projects in Duval County and parts of St. Johns, Clay and Nassau counties.

Fullwood said the city would appeal to the Metropolitan Planning Organization only if Kulash can show with traffic forecasts that Riverside Avenue and Forest Street won't need six lanes for traffic.

david.bauerleinjacksonville.com, (904) 359-4581

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