Imagine the drive from Mercer University to East Macon by way of downtown. Now – instead of four lanes of traffic – imagine bicycle and pedestrian paths, elaborate landscaping, and even a trolley running up and down the middle on tracks.
It may sound pie-in-the-sky, but Phase One of the Second Street Transformation Project is about to become a reality.
'Something that’s green, sustainable'
Walking along the hot, cracked sidewalk, parking lots and vacant buildings stretch along either side of Second Street. Fixing it up has been a top priority for Mayor Robert Reichert since at least 2011, when he and others persuaded voters to approve a special sales tax to pay for some of the work, in addition to other projects.
Two years later, Reichert is happy to say: city councilors have approved $1.4 million in contracts for Phase One, “to build the connector link between Second Street and Little Richard Penniman Boulevard [on the Mercer End], and to build a design block, or a pilot block, on Second Street between Cherry and Poplar so that people can kind of see what a complete street will look like. Something that’s green, sustainable.”
“What we’re going to do here, is take the four lanes down to two lanes,” says Second Street Transformation Project manager Clay Murphey as he surveys the block between Cherry and Poplar.
“[We’ll] provide for more on-street parking. We’ve got old, broken up concrete that we will completely resurface with a porous material that’ll allow us to collect the rain water. [There will] be a whole series of new landscaping islands and trees. We’ve got to raise our curbs, we’re going to lower these really high street lights.”
But again, this block is just a demonstration. Other funding would have to be found to do the rest of Second Street, and it’s a whole two miles from Mercer to East Macon. Whether such a big multi-year investment should really be a priority is a subject of disagreement.
Differing views among downtowners
Among downtown business owners, restaurateur Cesare Mammarella is a big supporter. He says if the mayor’s vision is realized, it would be one of the most complete transformations he’s ever seen of a city this size.
“I’m familiar with the Smyrna transformation, how they really kind of worked on the little downtown area over there. I think this would significantly surpass that,” Mammarella says.
Gary Schechterle likes the Second Street concept too. But as the owner of a restaurant two blocks away on Cherry Street, he’s a little worried he won’t reap the full benefit.
“Anything pulls traffic away from us obviously wouldn’t be a good thing for this end of town, or this end of Cherry,” Schechterle says. “Hopefully it’ll be a good thing overall.”
City Council member Elaine Lucas is less balanced in her critique than Schechterle. She’s been wary of the project from the start, much for the same reason.
“I just don’t think we’re building equally across the city,” Lucas said at a recent city council meeting.
Lucas has often argued that downtown in general is getting too much money and attention, particularly at the expense of low-income neighborhoods. Though she did ultimately vote in favor of the contracts for Phase One of the Second Street project.
“This just needs to be replicated in all sections of the city so that we have equal buildup of all of the City of Macon,” Lucas said.
Benefits beyond downtown
But if Reichert is able to find funding for the remaining phases, it won’t just impact downtown. The refurbished corridor will stretch all the way from Lucas’s district in East Macon to Tindall Heights, a partially rundown neighborhood on Mercer’s doorstep.
Venesia Brown says something needs to be done to slow traffic in her neighborhood.
“Because recently I had my little girl’s friend got killed on the street. We need a lot of ways for people to be able to cross the street right and be able to walk on the street safely.”
Phase one of the project should help with that. Artist renderings of the new street connecting Second with Penniman Boulevard show wide sidewalks and a tree-lined pedestrian island running up the middle.
Construction on that and the demonstration block downtown is scheduled to begin as early as October.