At a meeting to air public comments about proposed changes to Interstate 59 downtown, highway department officials indicated they were willing to listen to at least some of the concerns of residents by changing their controversial plan — a little.
Between the Norwood community meeting April 18 and Thursday night’s public involvement meeting, the Alabama Department of Transportation relented on a part of their plan that would have closed 24th and 28th Streets to through traffic.
The possibility of closing those streets was a bone of contention with Norwood residents who argued that doing so would further isolate their neighborhood from downtown. Still, for ALDOT to decide not to close those streets may have been an olive branch — or just throwing the complaining residents a bone, depending on who you ask.
Even with those changes, other streets could still be closed under the impending plan, which will replace the entire downtown section of I-59 with a taller, wider, quieter and better looking bridge. Indeed, as of last night’s meeting, the rest of the ALDOT plan remains intact.
As of Thursday night’s meeting Norwood residents were the main voices objecting to the changes, which would close all exits and on-ramps between 17th Street and 25th Street and make 11th Avenue North a major feeder for the freeway.
“ALDOT’s not hearing voices from Druid Hills, not hearing voices from Fountain Heights,” said Sarah Bettinger. Those neighborhoods also would be impacted by proposed changes, but so far, most of the outcry seems to be coming from Norwood.
Moreover, because the changes will impact access to the entire central business district of Birmingham — including the new entertainment district, the Civil Rights district, and the loft district — Bettinger believes other constituent groups need to be heard. “We really feel like this is more than a Northside neighborhood problem,” she said.
Another Norwood resident said the problem is also a potential political one for the city. “Where is Mayor Bell?” asked Steve Perrett. “This is a big thing for his administration.”
Even after hearing about ALDOT’s reversal on closing 24th and 28th, residents still said they didn’t like the plan for various reasons, ranging from the closure of the 12th Avenue bridge, currently a common route into and out of Norwood, to the actual alignment of the freeway itself, which was planned and built during segregation, and which resulted in the disruption of several traditionally black neighborhoods.
“I feel like the route was racially motivated,” said Ken Harris, one of a growing number of vocal white Norwood residents interested in seeing the community revived. Although Harris said he did not believe the current freeway plan was racially motivated, “I don’t see where city planners have been involved here. If you do this plan as presented…you have increased the isolation of the northern neighborhoods that began 40 to 50 years ago. It’s time to fix these problems.”
ALDOT contends its plan is actually designed to fix a number of problems related to safety and aesthetics. The newly constructed freeway section would remove on- and off-ramps that require drivers to “weave” cross lanes in front of other drivers to get where they want to go — a major cause of interstate accidents.
Perrett said the plan would actually just trade safety on the freeway for less safety on the ground, in areas where rerouted traffic would increase because of street and ramp closures.
The plan would also allow for the creation of more pedestrian areas under the freeway, including a proposed courtyard between Boutwell Auditorium and the Birmingham Museum of Art on one side and the Birmingham Jefferson Convention Complex on the other, made possible by the closure of 9th Avenue North in front of the civic center.
A number of residents questioned whether the freeway should be completely realigned or buried in a tunnel underground, freeing up the land above and removing the physical barrier between the business district and the neighborhoods.
ALDOT Division Engineer Brian Davis told Weld that the highway department had considered proposals to bury the interstate and move it, and had rejected those ideas.
“The plan of burying the interstate was never ALDOT’s plan, never a plan we proposed, never a plan we thought had any merit,” Davis said last month. “It’s a plan Operation New Birmingham came up with.
“We were willing to work with them on that. We told them at the very start of that what our concerns were,” he said, indicating that one problem would be drainage of water that would flow from rain into the tunnel. ALDOT shared their concerns about the plan with ONB, Davis said, “and at the end of that process, they saw that our concerns had merit.”
Davis has also told Weld why he didn’t think moving the freeway north would work. ”I’ve heard about moving the interstate for 20 years because for 20 years I’ve looked at ways to possibly move the interstate. And if you look at the industrial development that’s occurred there, if you look at the airport, if you look at the cemetery near the civic center, you look at a lot of things up in that community, you start to understand why it hasn’t been moved yet. It would be next to impossible to move it.
“If you were successful in moving it,” he said, and then repeated for emphasis, “if you were successful in moving it, you might see that happen in 20 to 30 years. That’s the nature of the environmental clearances you’d have to obtain. That’s the nature of all the issues that would be involved in trying to do that. So in the meantime, what do you do with this civic center bridge? It’s got a deck that’s reached the end of its useful service life. That’s where we started. We started to replace this deck.”
ALDOT was, he said, “asked by the city and the county to look at doing more than just a deck replacement. Make some improvements. Make it work. Because, for the next 15 or 20 years while we continue to argue about moving the interstate, you’re going to be facing the fact or the reality that that bridge is going to be right where it is today, and we’ve got to figure out a way to make it function as well as it can function.”
Still, a number of Norwood residents argued that ALDOT’s plan was not made with appropriate input before it was formulated. “I understand you want to make it comfortable for the business district,” said Shirley Ellis.”But you did not consider the needs of the residents.”
A resident of the loft district on the opposite side of the freeway also spoke at the meeting Thursday. Patrick Ballard said he particularly shared concerns about the potential “sixfold traffic increase” on 11th Avenue North and the restrictions on movement and development the plan would cause “in an area of increasing population density.”
Reaching out to others affected by the freeway proposal remains an ongoing effort for Norwood residents, said Bettinger, who hopes more people, including business leaders, will weigh in on the I-59 plan before it is too late. “I don’t feel this is the right solution,” she said.
Whether there will be other public involvement meetings for residents to continue voicing their concerns remains an open question. Davis, the division engineer, said he was unaware of any other planned meetings with members of the community, although he did not rule out that possibility.