by Eric Ginsburg
The Greensboro City Council’s liaison to the Downtown Greenway appears reticent about the project and unsure of where it ranks in his priorities.
By his own estimation, Greensboro City Councilman Jamal Fox quickly became a magnet for all things transportation. The young councilman, almost a year into his first term, ran on a transportation platform, vowing to make it a priority in the northeastern part of the city that he represents.
“I do everything with transportation now,” he said, rattling off several positions he currently holds and calling Transportation Director Adam Fischer during an interview to explain a role he was appointed to pertaining to public transit the day before.
One of the positions Fox holds is council liaison to the Downtown Greenway project, a partially completed loop that will circle the city core. But Fox, whose office is filled with maps of different road construction projects in his district and who has a greenway binder on his desk, is still trying to navigate what he ranks as most important.
“I’m a supporter of the greenway because I know what it would do for connecting our community and how important it is to our city, but at the same time I have to prioritize,” he said, though declining to name a top transportation priority.
Fox, who ran on a populist platform, appears to be performing a balancing act between the perceived desires of disconnected and long neglected neighborhoods and a centralized project such as the greenway.
He repeatedly emphasized the importance of moving quickly on projects that residents have been waiting on for years — sometimes more than a decade. Though he didn’t disparage the greenway, a significant portion of which would run along Murrow Boulevard in his district, he voiced minimal enthusiasm for it.
“The greenway is just one of many projects I have on my plate in my district,” Fox said. “First and foremost are infrastructure and transportation needs in the northeast. I am all in for making sure District 2 has our portion of the greenway but I want to be sure it’s not instead of. I want to make sure expectations on both sides are met.”
Fox said several significant transportation projects in his district, including the Cone Boulevard Extension and sidewalks on Yanceyville Street, have languished for years. Meanwhile, momentum for the greenway has built, aided in particular by several high-profile investments along the planned route.
That tension between priorities was more apparent after a Greensboro Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting last week. The entity, which oversees transportation planning for the area, tabled discussion on allocating some funds for the greenway.
The plan, Fox said, was to reallocate funds designated for the Florida Street extension project to sidewalks on a portion of Lee Street and towards the Murrow Boulevard portion of the greenway. Fox said $3.2 million had been set aside for the now-scrapped road extension, but said he is unsure how much would potentially go towards the greenway.
“That kind of halted because we decided we needed to talk to the representative from District 1 [Sharon Hightower] and members of council to see if they want to do that,” Fox said.
The item will be back on the MPO’s agenda for its September meeting, he said, but when asked if he supported the proposed use of funds Fox dodged the greenway entirely.
“I definitely support getting the sidewalks out there,” he said, “but we need to discuss more closely where we’re talking about applying those dollars. I’m in support of those sidewalks but… we just need to make sure we’re applying it to where the true need is.”
The Downtown Greenway is a public-private partnership project. The next portion slated for construction runs along the northern edge, while the Murrow Boulevard component — known as Phase 2 — won’t be fully designed until spring, according to the current timeline. Construction is tentatively expected to begin part way through 2016. Private fundraising goals have already been met, but the city is still determining how and when to pay for its share.
The tension between new and old transit needs in the historically marginalized district again came to the fore when the greenway working group that Fox is on voted on a new, cheaper plan for the eastern stretch of the Downtown Greenway.
Assistant City Manager David Parrish, who co-chairs the committee, said the revised plan will now eliminate one of three northbound lanes on the overbuilt Murrow Boulevard rather than redesigning the entire street and moving the median.
The committee approved the new plan — which at around $6.5 million will save approximately $3 million on the initial price tag — earlier in the summer and the city is “working through the full design for all of the details now,” Parrish said.
But Fox didn’t support the changes and, while noting that it will be up to the entire city council to vote on the plan, said that he will “more than likely” advocate for the original design when it comes before council.
The greenway would run along the eastern side of Murrow Boulevard, and the new plan only alters the design for the stretch from the Washington Street overpass to about Lindsay Street, Parrish said. Fox said he would like to see the median shifted to reduce the southbound lanes, attention to the sidewalk on the western side and more.
Parrish said that city staff has already received direction from council that completing the Downtown Greenway is a top transportation priority.The plan is for Parrish to present a detailed update to the full city council in October, he said.
And while Fox appeared noncommittal about where the project ranked on his priorities list, he said several times that it is important that council be brought up to speed and consider its options.
“I was of the mindset, when the vote came up, to stick to the whole renovation rather than just making it two lanes and putting in a greenway,” Fox said. “I said, ‘If we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it right.’ I am trying to hold the expectations of community and hit two birds with one stone.”