Residents say roundabouts project came ‘out of nowhere’

Residents say roundabouts project came ‘out of nowhere’

Despite public comment and meetings, residents feel sidelined

On a recent Monday at rush hour at the confluence of three streets – Herschel Street, Geraldine Drive and St. Johns Avenue in Avondale – most traffic navigated the new roundabouts under construction by the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) with relative ease, slowing down for construction crews, barricades and pedestrians just north of the Big Fishweir Creek bridge.

The FDOT and city officials say the $1.2-million project will make drivers, joggers and students safer by slowing down vehicle traffic.

One such driver on February 21 was the target of a prolonged horn alarm, apparently slowing too much amid all the congestion that should ease once the two new roundabouts and associated upgrades are finished, likely this summer, according to FDOT.

A second roundabout will be south of the bridge where Herschel and St. Johns split up.

Some nearby residents are raising alarms, however. They say the few public input meetings for the project in recent years were not widely enough advertised to properly give all interested residents a voice to raise concerns. They say many of their neighbors and commuters in the area were likely unaware of the coming construction despite FDOT’s efforts, which included an “access management hearing” on January 22, 2020.

Two other “construction open houses” were set for July 15 and September 8, 2021 on a Thursday and Wednesday, respectively, the latter virtually in the evening. The prior open house was billed as a preliminary meeting with a full open house to be scheduled later.

Residents in the area said those attending the January meeting believed the project was a foregone conclusion with support from city officials and Riverside Avondale Preservation, often an advocate for pedestrian safety projects in the neighborhood.

The other improvements planned, beyond replacing two traffic lights with roundabouts, according to FDOT, include new parking on the Fishweir Creek Bridge, sidewalk updates and new signage.

That means the elimination of the left turn from Herschel southbound to Woodmere Drive, left turn from Geraldine to Herschel and through movement to St. Johns, and left turns and through movement from Woodmere Drive.

The design also requires the closure or modification of driveways in FDOT right-of-way at the following locations:

  • Two driveways on the north side of St. Johns Avenue in front of St. Johns Food Store and St. Johns Flower Market will be modified.
  • One driveway in front of St. Johns Properties and Casablanca Day Spa will be closed.
  • One driveway on Herschel Street in front of St. Johns Plaza and Harps Restaurant will be modified.
  • The east driveway on Geraldine Drive in front of Ray Hardware will become right in/right out.
  • The driveway in front of Herschel Animal Clinic will be modified.

American Lighting and Signalization LLC was hired to complete the project.

Marshall Butler of the Fairfax Manor neighborhood on the south side of Fishweir Creek described the public input process as an “absolute sham.”

“Hampton Ray (FDOT spokesperson) will gleefully tell you that they only had to notify folks within 100 feet of the intersection, and God bless them, the FDOT notified homes within 500 feet of the public hearing. Whoopee,” he said by email in mid-February. “That intersection is the primary ingress/egress point for over 100 homes in the Fairfax Manor neighborhood.”

He compared the public notification process to that of those city rezoning hearings, which happen regularly and require road signage he said was not provided for this FDOT project. He reasoned that such signage would bring more commuters and neighborhood residents to public hearings, particularly when there was only one before the public hearings on construction.

“This was a done deal from the very beginning with a feel that there is a back-office deal or personal favor in play. Public comment was never taken seriously. Every person that I have spoken with at the FDOT has been dismissive of any concerns. I have personally run nearly 50 percent of the streets in Jacksonville and have seen firsthand issues that are in dire need of attention. The FDOT should be better stewards of our tax dollars and address those issues first. This is a solution looking for a problem,” Mr. Butler said.

“To make a radical change to an intersection deserves no less. And I love ‘The Resident,’ but the days of public notices appearing in printed publications is an outdated mode of notification. But then again, the FDOT didn’t really want comment on this project. Even those lucky enough to attend that single meeting where public feedback was allowed will tell you they were dismissed and railroaded,” he said.

“Once the design was released we immediately began voicing our concerns,” he continued. “We were told they would accept comments through email. Many of us sent in emails. We also confronted the FDOT in one of [Councilwoman] Randy DeFoor’s town hall meetings but since the public comment period was past, they really didn’t care. I can personally attest to calling DeFoor’s office on a regular basis. She spoke to the Rotary Club of West Jacksonville on March 4, 2020 and publicly agreed to facilitate a meeting between the neighborhood and the FDOT. Excuses were made and that meeting never took place.”

Councilwoman DeFoor has said previously that a majority of her constituents support the project that should benefit the safety of drivers and pedestrians alike.

She agreed that more public notice of such projects is warranted.

“Involving the public in decisions that affect them is vital to a strong neighborhood,” said Councilwoman DeFoor, Feb. 22. “I fully support my colleague, [Florida House] Representative Wyman Duggan, in modifying the processes laid out in the Florida Statutes to bring more voices into the planning process.”

She said in addition to flyers, newspaper ads and press releases, several community meetings took place on the project, including as early as Oct. 24, 2019 at Riverside Presbyterian Church and at Ortega United Methodist Church on January 30, 2020, in addition to FDOT’s three public meetings.

“However, I believe the pandemic negatively impacted people feeling a part of this project,” said Ms. DeFoor.

Beyond more public notice, Mr. Butler said among his biggest concerns is the project may push traffic from his neighborhood to exit further south of the bridge at the Marquette intersection with Herschel, which is already narrow and dangerous.

“If there is a truck or SUV stopped there you will have to hop the curb to get in. It is also a blind curve,” he said.

Another concern voiced by residents is pedestrian safety with Fishweir Elementary nearby on Herschel.

“Even with flashing yellow lights, you take your life into your hands at Boone Park and in the Shoppes [of Avondale] trying to cross the street. Are parents and children going to be expected to cross without the safety of a stoplight protecting them?” said Mr. Butler. “And since the lights have been brought down near the Flower Market, I have walked the stretch of sidewalk along the curve off of Herschel onto St. Johns in front of the apartments a number of times in the evening. Cars now come flying through that curve without a [traffic] light. It won’t take much for a car to hop the curb and take someone out.”

He said he liked the roundabouts plan initially until he saw the design.

“Designed by the people that are still trying to fix the I-10/I-95 interchange. Designed by the people who thought putting black chain link fence on the Fishweir Bridge was a great example of beautification,” he said.

And he’s not alone. Geraldine Drive resident Mike Webster said his concerns boil down to additional parking near a bar and the less than stellar efforts at gathering early public input.

He understands the benefit for commercial interests in the neighborhood, who favor anything to boost foot traffic for their businesses.

“What we had at that intersection was dedicated crosswalk/traffic signalization. Traffic came to a stop for pedestrians. I guess that was not cool enough. It appears additional parking [on the bridge] is a design component,” he said. “… Have a few beers at Harpoon Louie’s and stumble out there on the bridge.”

He said the project “seemed to come out of nowhere.”

“I realize there were a series of public meetings. COVID likely thwarted residents’ project awareness and participation,” he said in mid-February.

“I attended one neighborhood meeting where a [City of Jacksonville] representative was on the agenda to discuss the roundabouts. I asked the city spokesperson if the roundabout placement was to accommodate future growth. The answer was, ‘I will need to get back to you on that.’ I never ever thought, in 20-plus years as a Geraldine Drive resident, ‘Gosh, we need a roundabout here!'” said Mr. Webster, who has lived on Fishweir Creek since 2000.

By Joel Addington
Resident Community News

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