The meeting room of the New Albany Board of Aldermen was filled beyond capacity Tuesday evening, Oct. 4, 2022.
Normally, the only people at the board’s monthly meetings are the mayor and aldermen, city department heads, news reporters and perhaps one or two people with specific business, perhaps a zoning matter, on the agenda.
However, Tuesday night many people ended up standing in the stairwell outside the meeting room and spilled over to the city hall lobby on the ground floor.
Why the sudden interest in the work of city government?
Most of those overflowing the room were present to protest what they believed was a move by the aldermen to stop people from parking motor vehicles in the middle of Bankhead Street, the principal street of the downtown business district.
Bankhead Street is also Highway 178, which is maintained and governed by the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT). Parking in the middle of Bankhead St. is a violation of state law.
The way things have operated for many decades, Bankhead through downtown has one lane of traffic westbound and one going east. The pavement is wide enough to allow a row of diagonal parking on both sides if the street – AND still leave eight or ten feet in the middle between the two traffic lanes.
Many drivers, starting longer ago than anyone remembers, have parked their mule-drawn wagons, motorized sedans, pickups and 19 ft. SUVs in that eight-foot strip in the middle of Bankhead. It’s not terribly uncommon to see a 15-foot trailer hitched to a pickup truck, the entire rig well over 30 feet long, parked in middle of the street. This with cars whizzing by going east and west, two or so feet away, at 20 to 50 miles per hour. Those who have not previously observed such a parking scheme first see it as a highly risky situation.
Although the issues of safety and conforming to the law have been raised several times over the years, MDOT has chosen to “look the other way” for decades, and so has local government.
Over time, many local people have come to think of parking in the middle of Bankhead Street as a near-sacred right. Some argue that “parking in the middle of Bankhead St. is what makes New Albany unique.” Periodic discussions about possibly enforcing the law against such parking always draw alarmed pushback from folks who like it that way.
What was the immediate cause for alarm at the October 4 board meeting?
On Tuesday, September 27, one week earlier, the Board of Aldermen met at city hall to consider an application to MDOT for a $1.9-million grant. The grant application is under an MDOT program called Transportation Alternatives Project (TAP). The TAP money is mostly furnished by the federal government and is administered in Mississippi by MDOT.
The Sept. 27 grant application says the money, if granted, is to be used for work along Bankhead St. from Railroad Avenue to the intersection east of the Tallahatchie River bridge and along Railroad Avenue for 200 feet north of Bankhead.
The work would include: “removal and replacement of existing sidewalks on both sides of existing roadway, widening proposed sidewalks to increase capacity for pedestrian traffic…proposed sidewalks to have uniform surface with smooth vertical transitions, more conducive to walking and travel by handicapped constituents…to provide a means of safe pedestrian travel…while also slowing the speed of motor vehicles…adding curb islands, bulb-outs, to serve as traffic calming devices for increased pedestrian safety…”
On Sept. 27, the aldermen voted four to one to approve the application and the mayor signed the resolution. Aldermen Parks Smith, Drew Horn, Keith Conlee and Kevin Dale White voted in favor of the grant application. Aldermen Will Tucker voted against it.
Many retail merchants with businesses on both sides of the proposed work, believe that the work of widening the sidewalks would result in the elimination of the approximately 15 “parking places” in the middle of Bankhead St.
They were represented Tuesday night by Chuck Cooper, the owner/operator of Van Atkins Jewelry, considered by many the premier jewelry story in Mississippi. Cooper spoke in quiet, reasoned phrases saying he wanted to “keep everything nice.” He said merchants need all the parking they can get near their business and are concerned that the work proposed in the grant application could eliminate those 15 parking slots.
There is no assurance that the grant application will be approved, and the whole thing may be a tempest in a teapot.
The discussion lasted more than an hour. Board members, Mayor Kent and Community Development Director Billye Jean Stroud all assured those present that there was no intent to harm downtown businesses. They believe that the proposed work would enhance downtown as a shopping area and improve safety.
The risk of someone being badly injured, or even killed, because of people getting out of vehicles in the middle of Bankhead Street or of pedestrians getting struck because a motorist cannot see them emerging from behind parked cars was discussed.
Those alarmed by the possible elimination of mid-street parking argued that such tragedy “hasn’t happened yet.” They also urged that the way to reduce the risk would be for local law enforcement to rigidly enforce a low speed limit along the strip.
The grant application does not reference the elimination of parking in the middle of Bankhead Street. Mayor Kent finally brought the discussion to a halt. He assured those present, “Before we actually do anything about any of this, we will give you a chance to come back and talk to us again.”
A completed copy of the multiple-paged TAP grant application will be available at City Hall on Monday October 10, 2022. Those interested in seeing the full application can call City Hall (662-534-1010) for an appointment.
In other matters at the October 4 meeting:
- The aldermen voted unanimously to move forward to condemn and demolish a decayed structure in the 1300 block of South Central Avenue.
- Approved a payment of $252,280.25 to Roberts Construction for renovation of the new municipal building at the old Fred’s store.
- Approved payment of $68,875 to Eubanks Construction for work on the Moss Hill Drive pumping station.
- Approved payments of $15,010 and $78,423.45 to KAJACS for work on the Carter Avenue pumping station.
- Approved the low bid of $380,505.73 from M&N Excavation for construction of the new road behind VUTEQ.
- Approved the low bid of $62,000 from Magnolia Sports for resurfacing tennis courts.
The next regular meeting of the New Albany Board of Aldermen will be at 5:30 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.