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I was one of hundreds of people attending the large AHTD public hearing on April 26 on the I-30 Crossing. Over half of the time of the public hearing was devoted to the Studio Main presentation about how the I-30 crossing could be dressed up. It looked pretty good. It was not as good as a boulevard or the Chester St. bridge option, but was thoughtful and urban friendly. I was impressed by the presentation, the earnestness of Chris East and the amount of work that had been put into it all. Tuesday’s hearing was attended by over 50 AHDT reps and advisors. It was a major part of the department’s charm offensive to win backing for its plans.
When the hearing ended, I was totally confused about what the relation was between Studio Main and the AHDT plans. I suspect I was far from alone in the room, or in the TV watching audience, with a similar confusion.
I lived in Boston when the Big Dig was being sold to the public there. I went to public hearings where the highway department trotted out all sorts of nice pictures of how removing the overhead expressway would bind downtown back to its lost harbor front, with a delightful ribbon of urban park. The park planning was an integral part of getting public approval and support for the Big Dig, and the parks were funded as part of the overall project - as they should be. Silly, uninformed me. I thought that was happening here.
I am sure Chris East was not in the least trying to deceive the public, but I had no idea that implementing the Studio Main vision was not part of the AHTD plan till he mentioned almost in passing at the end of his long talk that funding was not in place, and city and private money would be needed. I thought - what??? Are we supposed to fund this with bake sales?
AHTD should issue a public correction to make clear that they have no intention of providing all the nice stuff Studio Main wants. Again, I say this not in any way to disparage the work that Studio Main has done or to question their motivations. I admire them for having tried so hard to work within this horribly flawed system. Still, I left with the distinct impression that AHTD used Studio Main to confuse the public into thinking that we are getting a much better plan than we are. If this was not an intentional bait and switch by the AHTD, it sure was a brilliant unintentional one.
If a public highway department gives so much precious stage time in a huge public hearing to an attractive plan they don’t back, they really need to make the lines known. I have learned since the hearing that the Amendment 91 money paying for most of I-30 Crossing could allow the AHTD to include much of the Studio Main vision into its budget under a broad “improvements” spending authority. Sadly, the several department reps I spoke with after the hearing all repeated that the Studio Main improvements were too expensive. Green, other than a little astroturf, is not their thing.
If I-30 must be widened (a big “ if”), then wouldn’t it be a relief if the majority of our Little Rock Directors pushed the AHTD to pay for things like parks, trees, sculptures and capital projects for public transit to soften the harshness and environmental evil of their plans? Alas, they prefer to sit by passively, feigning powerlessness. They watch pretty pictures of what will never be and collude with the AHTD in pretending that bake sales will bring us a sustainable, walkable and lively future city, while they yet again let highways rip out our city’s heart.
When will Little Rock remove its blinders, and back visions like Studio Main’s with real political will, not just attaboys? Why won’t our City leaders ask the AHDT to commit to mitigate the damage they are planning to our shared downtown space, while they build another needless white flight highway? Little Rock could be so much better if it defended itself effectively. It’s a shame.
Urban Frontier, LLC
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