Herschel road work to promote pedestrian safety

Herschel road work to promote pedestrian safety

Extensive roadwork along Herschel Street and St. Johns Avenue near Fishweir Creek is slated to begin in the summer of 2021 and people residing in the Fairfax Manor neighborhood have mixed feelings about it.

To bring more walkability and pedestrian safety to the Fairfax Manor area, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is planning to dramatically change the configuration of State Road 211 (St. Johns Avenue/Herschel Street) between Canterbury Street and Melrose Avenue.

The $1.6 million road improvement project will reconfigure portions of the roadway that runs through the commercial enclave while restriping it and providing medians, said Hampton Ray, a spokesman for FDOT. The purpose of the project is to reduce confusion through the intersections along Herschel Street and St. Johns Avenue and to improve pedestrian safety, he said.

Specifically, the new roadway configuration will replace two signalized intersections with single-lane roundabouts. It will also add a sidewalk alongside portions of St. Johns Avenue and will add pedestrian crosswalks and pedestrian refuge islands to reduce the exposure distance for pedestrians crossing the road. “The improvements will promote safety along the corridor and enhance mobility for pedestrians,” said Ray. 

FDOT held a public hearing in January 2020, and a town meeting was held by District 14 Councilwoman Randy DeFoor a month later, where Jeff Daugharty, a FDOT design project manager, was in attendance to answer questions.  

But Avondale native Marshall Butler, a Fairfax Manor resident who has lived on Oleander Drive for 18 years, and several of his neighbors do not feel the project is a good use of FDOT money. Butler said he is does not think the new configuration of the road is necessary, and he is dismayed that only one public hearing, which was poorly advertised, was provided by FDOT, which allowed neighborhood residents to weigh in on the project. 

Butler said the road project will impact his entire neighborhood and that FDOT has done a “railroad job to get it rushed through.” Unhappy that a median will be installed in the center of Herschel, blocking the entrance to Woodmere Drive, Butler said the change would prevent residents from turning left onto Herschel if they want to make their way to Publix at Roosevelt Square. 

“You will have to take a right out of the neighborhood and go across the little bridge toward the St. John’s Flower Market and loop all the way back,” he said. “The change is going to put an incredible amount of pressure on one or the other exits of our neighborhood, especially Marquette at the fire station, which is already a narrow entrance to this neighborhood. If an SUV is stopped to leave the neighborhood, and you are trying to turn into the neighborhood, you are going to have to pop the curb to get in because it’s such a blind curve,” he continued. “Essentially, they are forcing a whole lot of traffic out of that back exit because of this change. People are not going to want to take this side route around the roundabout toward Fishweir Elementary to go to Publix,” he emphasized, noting that Herschel does not need two roundabouts to be installed because the lights at the intersection are very well timed and change so quickly, within 10 to 15 seconds. 

“I would love to see the data that justifies that this intersection is a bad intersection,” he said. “What puts pressure on these intersections is that San Juan off of Roosevelt is a four-lane mini highway that allows people to leave Roosevelt and cut through our neighborhood, putting pressure on Herschel. It allows people to speed off at San Juan and at St. John’s at the Daily’s (gas station). It is allowing people to comeback through the neighborhood and put pressure on these roads. It has nothing to do with the lights or these intersections. Why not put a roundabout at Herschel and San Juan where the Watson Realty is?”

Butler also complained that the residents who live in the middle of Fairfax Manor did not have a voice at the public hearing, because it was not properly advertised. He said FDOT should have put signs up near the intersection advertising the change as is required by the city when a building is rezoned.

“There was one public hearing for this, and it caught a lot of us by surprise. There was very limited attendance from folks in our neighborhood,” he said, adding he did have an opportunity to confer with Daugharty when he attended DeFoor’s Town Hall.  

Rendering of improvements to be made to Herschel Street
Rendering of improvements to be made to Herschel Street

“I confronted him and said you folks gave no public notice of that public hearing to our neighborhood, and he said they sent a notice to everyone who lives within 500 feet of the centerline of the project. If you look at 500 feet of the centerline, that just barely goes into the Fairfax Manor neighborhood and doesn’t allow everyone in this neighborhood who is going to be impacted by this change to have a voice. They did say they were allowing comments that we could submit to FDOT afterwards, but that was just a formality because this was a done deal, and they are proceeding as planned. This got railroaded through,” he said.

Sara Pleasants, a spokesperson for FDOT, said the public hearing in January was attended by 84 people. During the hearing, 10 people spoke during the question-and-answer period, while 24 submitted written comments and six sent FDOT comments by email, she said. After the hearing, six residents sent emails or written comments into FDOT, she added, noting  that by law, FDOT is only required to notify residents living within 300 feet of both sides of the centerline of the project. She said she went “over and above” what was required by sending out 178 flyers to residents living within 500 feet of the roadway. FDOT also sent out press releases, advertised on social media, notified government officials such as DeFoor, and placed two quarter-page advertisements in the Florida Times Union, both of which appeared within two weeks of the event.

In a phone interview, DeFoor said she understands Butler’s concerns but that more residents want the roundabouts installed on Herschel than not. “It’s one of those deals where three quarters of the residents want them and only a quarter of them don’t,” she said. “Quite frankly, I think it will slow the traffic down so the kids who are going to school at Fishweir Elementary will be protected. It will make that whole area more pedestrian friendly. I think it will be a big positive for the area, much like what happened in San Marco. People use the area as a cut-through, and I think it will stop them from doing that.”

Tom Bryan, who owns a business on nearby Merrimac Street, said he loves the idea of the roundabouts because he has seen the good that they have done in other communities by slowing traffic and making the area more accessible to pedestrians and bicylists. 

“The average demographic in the area is 41 years of age. Folks in that demographic have children. This is a very walkable area,” he said, pointing to a recent report by SmartAsset that listed Jacksonville as the fifth most popular U.S. city to which millennials are moving. He also added that the Riverside/Avondale area, particularly the Fairfax Manor community is especially popular with young families. “I’ve observed a number of times that mothers with strollers and joggers have had to avoid cars. It’s dangerous through there. The area has a confusing traffic pattern and may cause a fatality. Slower traffic will make it understandable for pedestrians,” he said, adding it made “his heart cringe” to personally see at least two people nearly get hit by cars trying to cross Herschel Street. 

It is important to increase the neighborhood’s walkability and utilization of the St. Johns River, and the FDOT road project on Herschel Street will do exactly that, he continued. “I love Jacksonville, but we have a long way to go. With this project we have a great opportunity to reverse what has happened over the years when a lot of people have moved to St. John’s County. We’re finally able to get them back here with a wonderful A-rated Fishweir School. We need to take advantage and be more attractive to millennials. If we can keep them here, this town will have a renaissance like we have never yet experienced.”

By Marcia Hodgson
Resident Community News

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