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“Pork chop” battle continues between districts

Wednesday, June 8, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

At the intersection of Morrow Street and Lamar Boulevard, a concrete barrier prevents District 4 residents to the east from heading due west into District 7. But the divisions between those who want to see the barrier removed and those who would like to see it remain aren’t as straightforward.

In the grand tradition of the nearby Crestview Gate, the Crestview neighborhood has a newly personified piece of infrastructure with a social media presence, complete with a parody Twitter account. But the fight over removing the concrete barrier dates back much further than these accounts. According to Jeanine Adinaro, who was present at a meeting about its potential removal five years ago, neighbors in her Highland Heights neighborhood have wanted it gone “since day one.”

The concrete “pork chop” at the center of the battle is a traffic-calming device located at the intersection of Morrow and Lamar. The barrier prevents westbound traffic on Morrow from driving across Lamar into the neighborhood and similarly prevents northbound Lamar traffic from making left turns onto Morrow.

It was put in place during construction of the elevated section of U.S. 183 in order to prevent traffic from cutting through the neighborhood to avoid it. However, that project has been complete for decades, and some residents say that the barrier only serves to unnecessarily divide the neighborhood. They argue that it stands as a testament to keeping “undesirable” residents to the east out of the neighborhood to the west, noting that those who live west of Lamar are free to drive east on Morrow.

District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar is among those who would like to see the barrier gone. He told the Austin Monitor on Tuesday that he and District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool had brought the discussion to the city’s Transportation Department “as an issue where we had some disagreement.”

So, last year, Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar reviewed the “intersection control devices” at Morrow and Lamar, penning a set of recommendations in December 2015.

Spillar’s report recommends that the pork chop stay in place, for now, unless otherwise directed by Council. Though he notes the “positive effects the increased connectivity would bring to the transportation network in the area,” Spillar explained in an email that he could not recommend removing the raised island due to the lack of sidewalks on the western side.

Spillar’s email also included a traffic study that shows daily traffic volume remaining steady east of Lamar if the island is removed. West of Lamar, the study shows that traffic on Morrow would increase westbound from 601 trips per day to 1,301 trips per day.

Casar noted that the increased traffic would be considered “totally normal” anywhere else in the city and points out that Morrow benefits from several sets of speed bumps and a sidewalk on one side, unlike many other streets in Austin.

Casar also explained that, in the interest of compromise, he has worked to find funding for one more sidewalk to make sure that “there would be no question that people in District 4 would be allowed to drive into the neighborhoods of District 7 without having to perform U-turns and take several other streets.”

The issue of sidewalks is crucial to Pool. Those who support retention of the island have praised her efforts, and when she spoke with the Monitor on Monday, Pool stressed that for her side of the street, it was a matter of “safety, not convenience.”

Pool was resolute in her opposition to opening up Morrow to more traffic if the neighborhood’s safety concerns are not addressed and the street remains without the addition of ADA-compliant sidewalks on the side that is missing them. Estimates for the safety improvements, which include the cost of a railroad track crossing, total $710,000.

However, Casar said there is a cheaper option that already has funding and should cost between $100,000 and $300,000, depending on how long the sidewalk is. He said that he would personally like to see a professional assessment of how much sidewalk is needed to “make the street extra safe.”

In the meantime, neighbors continue to disagree about whether the pork chop should stay or go.

Mike Lavigne, who is a member of the Crestview Safety Coalition, explained that the group was told that some were pushing for removal of the island so “folks on the other side of Lamar could cut to Anderson and Burnet faster.”

“We didn’t think a shortcut was worth more people dying over there,” said Lavigne, who noted that the area would require “some serious stuff just to make it maybe safe. And then you’re left with a second Anderson Lane.”

Highland Neighborhood Association President Alex Schmitz, meanwhile, said that no one in his neighborhood “really wants to keep it.” He explained that nobody uses Morrow as a cut-through and that the people in his neighborhood use the road to “visit friends, go to church and visit the supermarket there.”

At the moment, he said, doing that requires a convoluted U-turn at a “fairly dangerous intersection.”

“We don’t really understand why it’s there. The other side of Morrow talks about safety — preventing cars from driving through there. We are already driving through there, we just have to do an annoying 90-second U-turn along the highway,” said Schmitz. “The idea of blocking neighborhoods off, putting gates in, putting pork chops in … it seems weird that a Council person would be in the pocket of a loud group of neighbors.”

And, though Gretchen Doyle lives to the west of Lamar, she told the Monitor that she would like to see the pork chop go, too.

“There’s not much traffic over there anyway, and it just seems to be a big blockade saying to the people on the other side, ‘Don’t come into our neighborhood,’” said Doyle. “It just seems not friendly.”

As for what should happen now, Casar says, he hopes the resolution can be found outside of a Council action but made it clear that he would take that step, if necessary, to ensure that the street is in line with the city’s values and comprehensive plan.

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