A long-awaited road development on West Cervantes Street aimed at improving pedestrian safety is finally beginning construction this month, but some business owners worry it will detract from their businesses without addressing the root of the neighborhood’s issues.
The West Cervantes Street Pedestrian Safety Project has been in the pipeline for years, but it attracted attention and a renewed push in 2018 when two women and a child were hit by a car while they were crossing Cervantes Street at night in the Brownsville area. One of the women and the child died in the crash.
The resulting $7 million project will focus on a 2.2-mile stretch of the street between A and Dominguez streets, adding a median between the eastbound and westbound lanes, installing multiple traffic lights to slow traffic and creating barriers across the median in certain areas with the hopes of deterring pedestrians from trying to cross in those spots.
The problem, however, comes in trying to appease both the business owners who are concerned about hindered traffic flow to their locations and keeping pedestrians in a historically low-income and walking-dependent area safe.
“It’s a delicate balance between the community and safety,” District 3 County Commissioner Lumon May said. “We want it to be walkable and bikeable because we know it has a high pedestrian mobility in that area, so we want to encourage that but make it safe. And obviously we want to have businesses thrive, too.”
The speed limit along that stretch of road will be lowered from 35 mph to 30 mph, lighting and landscaping will be improved, walking paths will be wider and vehicle lanes will be reduced up to two feet in the project that is scheduled for completion in early 2022.
Four new traffic signals — at J Street, L Street, R Street and North Kirk Street — aim to slow vehicles and give pedestrians a safe place to cross the street.
Initially, the Florida Department of Transportation proposed a pedestrian barrier to run the entire length of the project, forcing pedestrians and jaywalkers to cross at only the traffic signals, but local officials and residents fought that plan and negotiated down to a few barriers at trouble spots.
Mike Shah, the owner of Modern Dry Cleaners, a small business in an almost 75-year-old building between S and T streets, is worried the project puts businesses in jeopardy while accommodating jaywalkers doing the wrong thing.
“You put a barrier in the middle (of the street) you might as well close your shop and go home, people aren’t going to make a U-turn and come around if it’s difficult, they’ll just keep going and start stopping somewhere else,” he said. “As it is, it’s hard to sustain in business, then you do these things to help pedestrians and not the businesspeople, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Three blocks west of there, Taste of Jerusalem owner Ray Sehweil has seen the evolution of the neighborhood in 15 years of owning a business along Cervantes Street. He sees the need for a pedestrian development, but believes the barriers should be constructed on the edge of the sidewalk to stop people walking into the street in the first place, rather than constructing them in the median.
“The neighborhood was affected tremendously by seeing a lot of people killed by crossing the street and after giving it very deep thought, I think consumption of alcohol because of these liquor stores was a lot of it,” he said. “I was one of the few that supported (pedestrian barriers) just around Pace and Cervantes because of the nature of the area, but not in the middle of the street.”
That stretch of Cervantes is dotted with a mix of trade-type shops like auto body businesses, thrift stores, small beauty salons and international-based restaurants like Asian markets and Sehweil’s Taste of Jerusalem.
Small gas stations and corner stores selling liquor are on almost every corner and are what many believe are enabling and exacerbating the pedestrian safety issue.
“It’s not a party, they’re in the liquor store just drinking and as soon as they walk out they don’t know where they’re going and just cross the street to get to the gas station for a pack of cigarettes, for example,” Sehweil said. “How do you solve this? I don’t know, but to me a fence on the sidewalk makes more sense.”
May, the commissioner representing that part of Brownsville, said the community is focused on becoming more commercial in the coming years, in becoming a walkable and bikeable neighborhood, and he agrees that package liquor stores are a hindrance to that effort, particularly in a low-income neighborhood.
“Unfortunately we have people taking advantage of people in that district and crash data can often be tied to people coming out of those (liquor store) establishments,” he said. “We have to not only hold government accountable but business owners, too, and citizens have to patronize those places with good will toward the community.”
Yuson Chong, the manager of People’s Beauty Supply at J Street, will have a traffic light in front of her corner business but is still worried about drivers balking at the idea of leaving traffic to stop by.
“It’s not that we’re so greatly busy that people can’t come in, but it’s an inconvenience, I think we could spend the money so much better somewhere else,” she said. “We have to see what the impact will be, but right now I’m nervous.”
May said that despite some concern about the project’s impact on business and pedestrian traffic, it’s still a step in the right direction as far as aesthetics and safety go.
“There’s been 50 years of neglect in the Brownsville community seeing little or no consideration for opportunity and in the last five to seven years we’ve seen a ton of investments,” he said. “We’ve been in some good talks about how to make a town center with grocery stores, other business opportunities and seeing how we address this corridor so good things are happening.”
A spokesman from FDOT was not available for comment on the project, but a recent virtual presentation on the project shows construction work will begin this month. Readers can find the presentation online at nwflroads.com/projects/443-769-1. Residents can submit comments on the projects until Feb. 8.
This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Cervantes Street work to begin soon, but business owners worry about traffic flow