Cross our heart: New Mall route raises concerns

In the mid-'90s it took two years and several fiery public hearings for Lee Danielson to win approval of a Mall crossing on Second Street in front of his Regal Cinema. But a new crossing that opened earlier this month at Fifth Street encountered nary a whisper.

On Tuesday, December 14– five days after the temporary crossing opened– even Bob Stroh, director of the Downtown Business Association, didn't know much about it. "We don't know how they're going to run it yet," Stroh reported, adding that he was expecting an official city email or memo sometime soon.

A memo was, in fact, circulated to Mall business owners on the morning of Tuesday, December 15, revealing that specially permitted delivery vehicles could traverse the Mall north to south at Fifth Street between 4am and 11am.

This decision, designed to help businesses cope with the extensive construction of the transit center and amphitheater at the east end of the Mall, "wasn't sudden," says the City spokesman, Maurice Jones.

Jones says the crossing was put in place after discussions with downtown business owners. He adds that while there is currently no plan to make the crossing permanent, it is a possibility.

"We'd have very deliberate public hearings about that," Jones insists.

Not everyone is reassured.

"I have concerns about the process," says Peter Kleeman, an environmentally conscious transportation consultant. "My concern is that the Mall is really a pedestrian space," he says, "and to invade that pedestrian space for whatever reason without giving any attention to the citizens who walk on that space is very bad public policy."

A McGuffey condo resident, Richard Berman, echoes Kleeman's concerns.

"I think any crossing of the Mall is bad," says Berman, who includes the eight-year-old Second Street crossing in his condemnation. "One of these days, someone's going to get killed. Cars do not stop, do not look, they just go," he complains.

But while there are certainly critics of the crossing, for many of the business owners at the east end of the Mall, the delivery crossing is a bright spot in what has been an otherwise frustrating picture.

"I'm glad they're doing it," says Bashir Khelafa, owner of the eponymous restaurant next to the downtown post office. When construction started, Khelafa says, "it was a nightmare." Whereas his delivery drivers had been able to come close to the restaurant by using Seventh Street, that changed once construction began. "People had to park in the garage and do many trips," he says.

While the crossing may help bring fresh produce in on time, it's not helping with the drop in business– or helping Elizabeth Hurka, owner of the Cat House on Fifth Street. Hurka, who has been in business for 11 years, says she's seen a "100 percent drop" in her business. The crossing, she says, is the least of her worries.

"I haven't seen any deliveries," says Hurka. "We haven't had much activity." The loss of the public parking lot next to the C&O restaurant where The Holsinger condominiums are rising is a different story.

"That's the worst thing they could have done," Hurka says of the City's decision to sell the land for development.

Critics Kleeman and Berman emphasize the need for more downtown parking rather than more crossings, considering there are now plans to develop the large public parking lot at Second and Water streets near the new LiveArts building.

Kleeman fears the crossing could become permanent without full consideration of the implications.

"There's a sinister undercurrent," he says, suggesting that if no one complains now, the City could assume the crossing "wasn't a big deal."

"I'd like to complain," says Kleeman, "so that there's at least opposition to this on record."

Delivery trucks can now cross the Mall at Fifth Street.