Sidewalk debate jeopardizes project in historic district


Depending on who's speaking, a plan to reconstruct Annapolis' Main Street -- in part by widening its sidewalks -- would improve the crowded thoroughfare or turn it into a tacky pedestrian mall.

The sidewalk debate, city officials say, has jeopardized the $5 million project.

Mayor Alfred A. Hopkins said last week the city is running out of time to negotiate with the Historic District Commission, which must approve such projects, and scheduled a City Council meeting for Friday to try to reach agreement on the Main Street reconstruction blueprint.

"The sidewalks are too narrow. We're widening the sidewalks to accommodate pedestrians," said Mr. Hopkins, who campaigned

for his second term with promises of a new and improved Main Street. "I'm prepared to go ahead with what the architects and engineers have designed for us."

City engineers have offered several different proposals that include widening the sidewalks, in some areas by up to 20 feet. City planners say the redesign would accommodate pedestrians while creating room for more parking and new underground utility stations.

But some Annapolis residents contend the larger walkways would spoil the charm of one of the city's landmark streetscapes.

"They're not creating Main Street, U.S.A., they're creating a shopping mall," complained Tom Davies, an architect who lives in the city's downtown historic district. "It's a mall design, it's a theme park design. It's not a historic design."

Last week, the Historic District Commission called for more revisions to the plan, which has been in the works for at least six years. Commission members said the wider walkways would squeeze the size of the street, creating bottlenecks and other traffic problems.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's a lovely streetscape now," said Harrison Sayre, vice chairwoman of the commission. "I don't think we should do anything to impede the traffic by narrowing the street. We should keep that same effect."

But some city officials say the government must move quickly on the project because the economic health of the city is tied to the future of Main Street.

"This project is too important not to be completed," said Carl O. Snowden, the Ward 5 alderman. "It's in the city's long-term and short-term interest to have a viable downtown business community."

The sidewalk fight erupted after city officials thought the plans were tied down. The Historic District Commission had given the redesign preliminary approval. An independent advisory board made up of residents, business people and city officials also gave its approval. Construction was to start in January.

"What bothers me the most is that this plan had been approved in concept and suddenly people are coming out of the woodwork and railing against it," said Emory Harrison, director of central services for the city.

Now, he said, the city must secure the commission's support by mid-November if it hopes to pick up $2.5 million in state funds, half the cost of the project.

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