Rock Hill's "college town" makeover could bring relief for walkers and bikers along Cherry Road, a treacherous place for students in front of the Winthrop University campus.
The city is considering a plan to install bike lanes, crosswalks and traffic-calming measures that supporters say would boost safety and create better opportunities for college-oriented shops and businesses.
Money could come from an upcoming proposal for "Pennies for Progress," which sets aside $1.2 million for safety and streetscape upgrades on Cherry Road.
Some city leaders are questioning the idea of bike lanes, calling them a poor use of taxpayer money and a bad fit for a heavily traveled road.
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Voters will decide in a June referendum whether to approve York County's one-cent road improvement sales tax for a third time since 1997.
Cherry Road is a prime candidate for the state's emphasis on pedestrian safety, DOT engineers told Rock Hill officials.
It's also a logical place to embark on a set of ideas to make Rock Hill a better college town, city officials said.
"To invest across the street (from Winthrop), you've got to be able to get across the street," said Bill Meyer, the city's planning and development director. "That was something we repeatedly heard."
A dangerous walk
Josh Woods says drivers are not accustomed to slowing down for pedestrians on Cherry Road, originally a main highway linking Rock Hill to Charlotte.
Woods is emblematic of the street's evolution: He uses the stretch near campus as a walking route with his springer spaniel, Luke.
"It's rare if you get someone who is considerate and lets you cross," said Woods, a resident on nearby Ebenezer Avenue Extension. "It's basically a hassle any time of the day."
As part of the changes, crews could narrow lanes and reduce the speed limit from 40 mph. A longer-term vision calls for burying power lines and installing a green median.
The push for bike lanes drew a puzzled reaction from Councilman Kevin Sutton, a skeptic of the "college town" concept. He said a four-lane road makes little sense for bikers.
"I keep hearing all these planners talk about bicycles," Sutton said during a lunchtime workshop Thursday at City Hall. "I bet if you asked everyone in this room, nobody rode a bicycle here today.
"Maybe staff needs to tell me where ya'll see this mass of people on bicycles, because I don't see it."
It's about providing alternative forms of transportation, says Mayor Doug Echols, a supporter of the Complete Streets initiative to improve safety for cars, walkers and bikers.
Echols often recalls the day he was having lunch at Groucho's Deli across from Winthrop when he looked out the window to see a student dart in front of traffic on Cherry Road.
The near-miss left a lasting impression on the mayor.
"We certainly want to do everything we can to make our community more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly," Echols said after the workshop. "We've got to move away from total dependence on the automobile."
Echols acknowledged a new concept such as bike lanes could spark suspicion: "Any time there's change, there's resistance," he said.
The idea came from a citizens group that spent six months identifying ways to improve rundown areas around campus.
Recommendations covered everything from tax incentives and zoning changes to a proposal for a mini-village of shops and cafes on land off Camden Avenue.
The goal is to create a better environment for businesses, said group chairman Larry Bigham, former owner of Thursday's Too restaurant.
"A lot of business people look at this as an opportunity," Bigham said. "You can get in at a cheaper cost. You have to go in and take a risk."
The group suggested a network of bike lanes around campus, with the Cherry Road stretch running from Winthrop Coliseum to District Three Stadium.
The upcoming Pennies proposal includes $564,000 for pedestrian safety changes around Sullivan Middle School in the area of Cherry Road and Eden Terrace, where many students walk to school.
Other cities' upgrades
Other cities have brought similar upgrades to streets bordering their universities.
In Raleigh, N.C., for example, a $9.9 million project brought roundabouts, wider sidewalks and more crosswalks to Hillsborough Street in front of N.C. State.
City planners in Blacksburg, Va., are overseeing a College Avenue promenade project to encourage more foot traffic in a retail district near Virginia Tech.
Consultants dismissed the notion that Cherry Road has too much traffic to become a vibrant college town street. They said traffic counts of 15,000 to 20,000 cars per day - like those in front of campus - are needed to attract businesses.
"They're not going to happen hidden back in a lower traffic corner," said Meyer, the city supervisor.
A safer way to reach class would satisfy Alex Miles, a Winthrop junior who makes the daily walk from his apartment across from campus.
"You have to wait for the oncoming cars to stop, and then you wait in the middle with cars on each side," he said. "I get scared when I cross that place."