Monday, May 19, 2014

South Emery Street Six Years Ago

Alternate title:  My humble front-page adventure with cycling advocacy.

Emery Street is one of Longmont's original north-south streets, named after H. D. Emery who was a newspaper reporter in Illinois in the late 1860's and was also involved in selecting Longmont's location, first known as the Chicago Colony.  South of Third Avenue, Emery Street is a quiet, somewhat neglected street running through an industrial area before crossing some bumpy train tracks to reach 1st Avenue. 

In 2008, a proposal was drawn up by the Butterball Turkey plant to permanently close a section of Emery Street south of Third Avenue, between 1st and 2nd Avenue.   Such a proposal had been brought up a few times already without success by Butterball's predecessor ConAgra but this one appeared to have momentum among local business leaders and some support from the city as well.   Butterball's reasoning was that Emery Street bisected their factory on the west side and a spice warehouse on the east and that increased FDA security requirements were calling for this area to be better locked down.  As long as a public street went through this area, the security requirements could not be met and they had data to show that this part of Emery Street was lightly used.  As a bicycle rider who used the targeted section of Emery Street regularly to get to and from downtown for a volunteer gig, I was quite taken aback by the idea that part of my quiet backstreet cycling route to/from downtown would be fenced off forever, and that a block of a longstanding public city street could actually be taken off the map.  I was reminded, however, that the City of Longmont did do just that with Kimbark Street when the Justice Center was built.

A map of the area instantly reveals the cycling problem.  As I was heading north to downtown, coming from the St. Vrain Greenway to the south, I'd take an exit path to 1st Avenue, go west on 1st Avenue, and then go north on Emery.  You'll notice the lack of north/south roads in this industrial/railyard area of town.  If Emery Street was closed, my options would be to ride the sidewalk on Main Street, which is never encouraged, or go over to Martin Street which six years ago was not improved and in general, was an unsafe cycling road (this was before the Martin Street bridge was built). 

I wrote up my concerns and sent them to both to the Bicycle Longmont mailing list and to my City Council members.  Immediately I received feedback from other cyclists who also used Emery Street, some of which noted that Longmont already had a shortage of north/south cycling routes and that this proposed closure would just make this situation worse.

The leader of Bicycle Longmont at the time suggested that I present the cycling position to the upcoming Emery Street closure hearing at the Planning and Zoning (PZ) Commission meeting, since he couldn't make the meeting and it would be good for them to hear from someone else on this subject.  This wouldn't be a binding meeting to decide the issue but it would drive a recommendation from PZ to City Council. 

The Times-Call was doing a story on the issue and called me to ask if I would meet their photographer (Richard Hackett) at Emery Street for a picture.  Hmm, what did I get myself into?  I pedaled over there after work on my trusty Trek 830 and met Richard for a photo (blocking the street!).  

Front page of the Times-Call on May 20, 2008:

I arrived at the meeting at city chambers on Wednesday, May 21, a little nervous seeing the sizable audience, and put my name on the list of "public invited to be heard."  First up, Butterball and its consultants presented their case and showed their traffic data.  Employment of hundreds was a major point of their case:  if their security needs could not be met, the plant may have to look elsewhere.   A local architectural firm then showed their plan on how they'd link the two buildings when the designated block of Emery Street became private property. 

When it was time for public comment, a few speakers preceded me from the business community (LAEC, LDDA, etc.) in general support of the closure, with each of them mentioning the potential for lost jobs.  When it was my turn at the microphone, I attempted to make the cycling case for keeping the road open, and as an alternative, requested that at least a multi-use path should be provided around the east side of the spice factory, to allow safe access to/from downtown until alternative routes were available from planned city road work.  We were clear that our position was not anti-business.   Others that followed me were mixed yes/no for the road closure.  Of the "no's", some just didn't want the plant there to begin with or didn't like the product, a 1st Avenue business owner or two said it would impact their operations and customer access, and a former ambulance crew member reminded the audience that Emery Street had been an important emergency route when a train accident during the previous decade closed Main Street causing a chemical spill. 

The PZ board members then started their discussion in which the cycling issue did get some attention.  A city representative mentioned the poor shape of Emery Street around the train tracks and brought up the projected future way of cycling from the Greenway to downtown, namely the upcoming Martin Street extension.  Emery Street, they said, would become less significant once that was built.  An extension of Boston Street (east/west) to Martin Street was also brought up (mentioned in article above, too) but as of 2014, the city is still working on this.  Butterball said that the suggested path was a possibility but that liability, lighting, plant security, path user safety, and budgeting were the concerns. The discussion then proceeded to go in the "visioning" direction about what this area of town might look like in the future.  At the end of the evening, nothing was really decided but everyone was heard. 

So what happened to the Emery Street closure proposal?  As I remember, after the PZ meeting, Butterball and their consultants were going to study the situation for a bit longer and potentially come up with a modified plan, including investigation of the proposed path.  A few months later, the financial crash of 2008 was in full force, hobbling the investment markets and tanking the economy.  I'm unsure if this had anything to do with an updated Emery Street proposal, but I don't believe anything was ever brought back.

Fast forward six years later and you'll find this once-forgotten area of town is starting to get some attention.   Butterball left town in 2011, for reasons unrelated to the Emery Street matter, leaving behind a  vacant factory with a "For Sale" sign on it.  During that time, the city rezoned the Butterball property from light industrial to mixed residential, in hopes of attracting a  more appropriate southern entrance to Longmont than a poultry operation in a soviet-gray factory. A potential buyer of the property in Denver has recently been identified who hopes to bulldoze the Butterball plant and build a residential/business complex on the site.  [[Note: It's just been reported today, May 19, 2014 that the Butterball site has indeed been purchased for $4.46 million.]] New businesses including a microbrewery have opened along 1st Avenue, the popular Cheese Importers is just across Main Street, and two blocks away will be the proposed Main Street transit station and surrounding businesses for the day when Longmont finally has a commuter train or a bus rapid transit system.   

South Emery Street today, very close to where the picture above was taken in 2008.  Hasn't changed at all except for a few new cracks in the road.  The lone tree on this block is still doing well:

The problematic spice warehouse:

Whenever I'm riding in this area today, I often wonder what would have happened to Emery Street if the closure had been approved back in 2008.   Would it have remained fenced off today and passed on to the eventual new owner of the property?  Or would the street have been returned to the City upon the plant closing,  and be re-opened to the public?

Six years later, it's clear that south Emery Street has a revitalized future, especially if the proposed development goes forward.


G.E. said...

I used to ride that part of Emery nearly daily. I still use it, but not nearly to the extent prior. I can't imagine not being able to pedal through there (despite the rough terrain over the tracks). It will be very interesting to see what develops with the former Butterball sale.

Peter said...

Agree totally, G.E., will be watching the new development with keen eyes. I'll gladly tradeoff a few bumps along the tracks to ride a quiet street, any day. In addition, Emery Street has the best grade to downtown from the south.