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Westside story
Progress on MLK has been dormant for years, but now the stage is set for big change on the Westside.
A rendering of one of the MLK streetscape improvement plans

As early as this spring, work could finally begin on streetscape improvements for the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard corridor after nearly five years of delays.

At last week’s City Council meeting — probably the shortest and most congenial meeting of the year thanks to the imminent holiday — Council members passed a resolution accepting $500,000 in funds granted by the Georgia Department of Transportation for the project, bringing the total funding, which also includes $3 million in SPLOST funds, to $3.6 million.

The resolution passed with little discussion or fanfare. However, it cleared what has been a major obstacle for further development along the corridor, which has been dormant since 2005. Although the GDOT funds represent only a small portion of the total funds necessary to complete the project, which was estimated to total $7.7 million when last calculated, the state money came with lots of strings attached.

“Revised plans were submitted to GDOT in 2006, and we’ve been going back and forth with them since to reach an agreement that protects the integrity of the original publicly developed plan,” says Bret Bell, the City’s Director of Public Information, in an email last week.

At times, negotiating the streetscape plans, which include improvements to sidewalks, medians and streetlights, directly pitted the DOT and the charms of Savannah against each other.

“At one point DOT had even directed that we cut all the live oak trees down along MLK because they couldn’t be that close to the right of way,” explains Lise Sundrla, Executive Director of the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority. “Linwood Brown, who was the former project manager, actually fought DOT and won, saying this is Savannah, we don’t cut down live oak trees.”

The biggest problem for the project was a DOT regulation that no other money could be spent on the corridor while approval was pending — leaving all the SPLOST funds on ice for almost seven years.

“When the $500,000 was committed toward us, not only did we have to meet their guidelines, but no portion of any funds, even the SPLOST funds, could be spent until they made their changes and approved them,” says Sundrla.

With all of these issues now resolved, the bidding process for the project can begin sometime in mid–January, once the DOT issues a notice to proceed, beginning a new chapter for a project that has been nearly a decade in the making.

The MLK Corridor streetscape plan was created in 2001, a joint effort by the City and the SDRA. It involved what Bell and Sundrla separately describe as “a lengthy public process,” including gathering input from community members and businesses.

From 200-2005, $1.2 million was spent strategically along MLK in conjunction with private investment — including extensive work along the 100 and 500 blocks where new businesses were being opened. The $3.1 million in SPLOST funds was secured during 2003, but before any of that money was spent, everything was frozen because of the GDOT restrictions.

With that hurdle now cleared, and bidding on the project set to open as soon as possible, a groundbreaking could happen as early as this spring. Work will begin on the southern end of MLK, at 52nd Street, and continue north to Gwinnett. Estimates for improvements to that stretch of the corridor are currently around $2.6 million.

Although cost estimates for the project haven’t been updated since 2005, there is a general hope that the economy will help bring in competitive bids and that the work could be completed without a big hike in the price tag. Any money left over will be used to continue improvements further north.

“With those additional funds, we’ll go as far as we can go,” says Sundrla. “We may be able to take it all the way to Liberty.”

To complete the project from Gwinnett north to the river is estimated to cost somewhere in the ballpark of $2.1 million.

The streetscape improvements could be the red carpet rolled out to welcome a period of major change for the MLK Corridor and the Westside. After being identified as social, physical and economic barriers as far back as 1999, there is finally funding and political support to begin looking at removing the flyover from MLK, which will have a significant impact on the area.

Removing the flyover would free up around nine acres of land for re–development, as well as allow four streets to be reconnected.

“You’ve got Berrien Street, Jones, Taylor and Gaston,” Sundrla says. “All of those streets can be knitted back so that MLK is no longer the edge of the corridor — it becomes the link to the rest of the community.”

Two recent developments have put wind back into the sails of the flyover removal efforts. In October 2008, the DOT completed a statewide study of interstate interchanges, and among those surveyed were the on and off ramps for I–16 along MLK and Montgomery.

The results of the study found that removal of the MLK ramps would not affect traffic negatively — essentially giving the first green light for change of the current infrastructure.

The second component of any infrastructure project — funding — has just come around as well.

Although some SPLOST funds were set to become available for the flyover study and engineering sometime after 2012, $1 million in funding just opened up thanks to some shifting of funds by the MPC, one of several groups who had written a resolution of support for the flyover removal over 10 years ago, according to Sundrla.

In November of last year, Wilbur Smith Associates, the consulting firm tasked with the study and analysis of potential traffic solutions for the flyover, was given notice to proceed.

One of the things they might be looking at is how the interchange could be adapted for the new arena; one potential site for which is located between Louisville Road and Gwinnett just west of West Boundary Street.

The progress doesn’t stop there though. Also forthcoming in 2010, SCAD will be breaking ground on a new addition for its museum on MLK. The new structure will stretch west off the existing building, creating additional gallery space, art storage, and a new auditorium.

“For so long people have wanted to see change along the corridor and this may be the right time — a perfect storm,” says Sundrla.

“We’ve got the political support; we’ll get some financial support; we’ve got the community engaged and now we can move forward.”