After two controversial and polarizing public debates over the merits of closing off public streets within neighborhoods to through traffic, the Mobile City Council will be tackling the issue head on.
The council will be seeking public comment on a proposed ordinance on neighborhood security gates during a Jan. 17 meeting of its public safety committee. Committee member John Williams described the meeting as an opportunity for the council to listen to both sides of the debate.
“The purpose of the meeting is to listen, maybe get an idea of the opposition and maybe clarify our position,” he said.
A decision Williams made to temporarily close off Andover Boulevard in the Regency Oaks neighborhood for a traffic study angered residents in the Wildwood and Malibar Heights communities.
Williams used Regency Oaks as an example of a case where closing a street could be justified moving forward. For instance, he said, closing off a street could limit “dangerous” cut-through traffic.
Although he said he feels closing streets could be beneficial to neighborhoods in some circumstances, Williams said he is open to hearing opposition.
“We want to hear from both sides,” he said. “I represent people on both sides of the issue and I’m completely open to all opinions.”
One opinion that differs from Williams’ belongs to his opponent in the District 4 City Council race. Robert Martin, who lives in the Wildwood subdivision and entered the race largely because of this issue, said an ordinance to allow the closure of public streets would do more harm than good.
“Basically, they’re coming up with a way to create cul-de-sacs,” Martin said. “They’ll create gated communities.”
In his neighborhood, which is the one most recently affected by the debate, Martin said accessing Andover is really the only way to get out with the “safety of a street light in one square mile.”
“I’ve been pushing for street lights at University to make safety a priority,” Martin said.
Martin spoke at the last City Council meeting of 2016 on Dec. 20, where he presented 135 signatures from residents along three streets near Andover.
Among concerns over safety and convenience, residents in the two communities near Regency Oaks are also concerned that the closing of Andover would negatively impact their property values.
“John Williams got pressure from Regency Oaks,” Martin said. “It would raise property values [at Regency Oaks] and lower them at Wildwood.”
Brent Barkin, president of the Regency Oaks Property Owners’ Association, said he’s working on getting unanimous consent from affected residents to allow for the permanent closure of Andover Boulevard to through traffic.
“People who were nervous about [the closure] to begin with are sitting on the sideline,” he said. “There is no political wherewithal to go ahead with permanent closure.”
The street was closed temporarily and then a traffic study was conducted by the Mobile Police Department. The issue, Barkin said, is that the study focused on speed rather than on the amount of traffic. He estimated that traffic through Regency Oaks decreased by 70 percent while the street was closed.
“There are 144 residents and 600 cars traveling on the street,” Barkin said. “It’s easy to see most are not residents.”
While the neighborhood wishes to close the street to vehicular traffic, Barkin said, shutting it off to pedestrians and cyclists is not the neighbors’ will. In fact, he said plans would allow for pedestrian and bike access to Andover from the other neighborhoods.
“We don’t want a wall,” he said. “We want a more unique entrance that invites pedestrians and cyclists. I liken it to what college campuses do, where certain streets are blocked off for pedestrians and cyclists.”
On the issue of street closures moving forward, Barkin said it should be left to the neighborhoods to decide.
“For permanent closures, the primary focus should be the residents’ wishes,” Barkin said.
On temporary closures, he said, the issue should be decided by a particular neighborhood’s council representative.
Regency Oaks isn’t the first local neighborhood to request that a public street be closed off to through traffic.
Almost two years ago neighbors filed a lawsuit over the City Council’s decision to allow residents of the Airmont Property Owners Association to place a gate along Montclair Drive for traffic and safety reasons. Airmont residents felt the closure would help prevent burglaries. Those opposed to the closure claimed, among other things, the move would deny access to Azalea Road to students who walk to school.
Councilwoman Bess Rich, who did not return a call seeking comment for this story, has previously come out in support of security gates for communities. She has said they can be used as a planning tool in the future. Rich has said she doesn’t view gates as a permanent closure because they can be opened. Instead, she said, they can help alter the flow of traffic.
At least one councilor is opposed to the closure of public streets for any reason. Councilman Fred Richardson has previously said he would only approve an ordinance pertaining to street closures if it was due to maintenance issues. He has said that crime and safety statistics should not be used as criteria because “that’s everywhere.”