Another bridge, another controversy: The pedestrian overpass on 277

cbrinson@thestate.comMay 17, 2007 

The peaked green roofs, the red brick and green mesh, the clean and simple lines are familiar to commuters rushing to and from Columbia on S.C. 277.

Part of the landscape now — an attractive part, particularly at night with its glowing lights — the 277 pedestrian overpass accumulated an impressive amount of hostile attention while being built.

It was almost a dress rehearsal for the furor over the Briggs-DeLaine-Pearson Connector, the proposed bridge across Lake Marion with roads in Lone Star and Rimini.

The man loved or hated for each is U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn.

Clyburn, first elected to represent the 6th Congressional District in 1993, has chosen as his hallmark bringing roads, bridges, water systems, industrial parks and other infrastructure to his district, which contains five of the state’s six poorest counties.

He reaps criticism as well as praise for what he sees as efforts to remedy past neglect.

Those objecting to the S.C. 277 walkway weren’t opposed in general to pedestrian bridges.

After all, Columbia offers six others: Two aging USC pedestrian overpasses, one crossing Blossom Street, another crossing Pickens Street; two new overpasses leading to USC’s Strom Thurmond Wellness Center; and two overpasses connecting Palmetto Health Baptist hospital to parking garages.

An eighth might be added across Assembly Street, connecting a parking garage and the Strom Thurmond Federal Building, says Steven Gantt, senior assistant city manager.

The 277 walkway came into being because of safety concerns. And it, like West Columbia’s pedestrian overpass at Jarvis Klapman Boulevard, connected communities divided by roads.

The 277 highway — bordered by West Beltline and Farrow Road — separated established neighborhoods, families and friends. The highway didn’t stop those on one side from wanting to get to the other side; people were injured or killed trying to rush across the busy four-lane highway, which opened in 1975.

Children, teens and adults regularly ran across. Nine-gauge steel fencing, erected in 1989, didn’t stop them.

Between 1975 and 1989, five people died trying to cross, including Giesla Hollins, a Burton Elementary fifth-grader walking home from school with friends, who called out a warning too late.

Objections to the walkway — still heard — focus on Clyburn, for whom the walkway is named; the walkway’s price tag; and its potential beneficiaries.

The James E. Clyburn Pedestrian Overpass is attacked as “a multimillion-dollar shrine.” Commuters complain that they see no one on the walkway, but still see mad dashes across the road.

The overpass was described as a “bridge that comes from no place and goes to nowhere.” That’s a tag that won’t go away. Clyburn’s proposed bridge connecting Lone Star and Rimini has been dubbed by opponents “the bridge to nowhere,” too.

But the older neighborhoods bordering 277, and the pedestrian overpass, were well populated before the highway cut through to alleviate the commute from northeastern suburbs. The same is true today of Bethel-Bishop, Booker Washington Heights, Colony Apartments, Burton Standish, Lincoln Park, Colonial Heights and Golden Acres.

In 1989, the estimated cost of the pedestrian overpass was $1 million. By 2003, when the brick- adorned walkway opened, the cost had risen to $4.2 million. Federal funds paid for 80 percent.

Clyburn responded in 2004 the way he still does to critiques of projects in his mostly poor, mostly black district:

“I am accustomed by now to having every project I undertake in predominantly African-American communities labeled wasteful. These constituents and their communities are repeatedly ridiculed as nobodies living nowhere. They have been treated that way historically, and I am bound and determined to end such treatment.”

Henry Hopkins, executive director of the Eau Claire Community Council, echoes that assessment: “Rep. Clyburn took a whole lot of flak, but in my experience if anything’s going on in minority neighborhoods that’s important, there will be flak.”

Neighborhood residents still smart over the controversy. They point out that the criticism ignores the split of the communities, which created the safety problem.

“They gutted the area,” says Sam Davis, who represents the area on Columbia’s City Council. “Every time there’s a bridge or major highway, it’s always poor neighborhoods.

“When they did that, 277, there was no conscience about it; 277 was never intended to benefit neighborhoods it gutted. There is no commerce on 277 by design. It was a means of getting somewhere, from the northern part of the county to the inner city.

“What was the benefit to the people whose neighborhoods were destroyed? There was no benefit to them.”

Davis mentions years of seeing children dodge traffic after the highway opened. “If you can save a life, save a life,” he says.

“The pedestrian footbridge is a landmark for communities that were one before the road was built,” Hopkins says.

“There were families that had been here 50 years, and there was an arbitrary division created by that road. The pedestrian footbridge can be discussed in the context of social justice, but it emanated from practicality.

“The bridge was for safety reasons.”

He adds, “It could have been a slab of concrete with a chain-link fence. It could have been butt-ugly.

“We wanted a perception of positive rebirth. That additional design factor was a small piece of everything that was happening,” which is the continuing development of the North Main corridor.

Katheryn Bellfield, president of the Booker Washington Heights Neighborhood Organization, says, “I was particularly interested in the bridge because I worked for Richland District 1 when that child was killed.”

She remains interested because she wants her neighborhood, tipping into renters’ decay, to thrive again. “It’s my feeling with the revitalization of Busby Street that bridge will be used more than it is now,” she says.

A culinary school and better housing are planned for Busby Street, which dead-ends at the walkway.

Lorick Park is being renovated, as are the nearby Grand Street Apartments. Gable Oaks Apartments were redone three years ago. And a deli at the North Main Plaza, 30,000 square feet of neighborhood retail and offices, is pulling in regulars.

“If the city didn’t jump start the redevelopment, we would be nowhere because we’re so far behind,” Hopkins says.

Since 1993, Eau Claire has received more than $11 million in city, state and federal funds, leveraging that into almost $70 million in projects, says Michael L. Manis, executive director of the Eau Claire Development Corp.

“Look at the last 10 to 15 years and add up the totals,” then compare to the investment in the Vista/USC area, charges Manis.

“Then ask yourself, does this look like a few drops in the coffee cup vs. a full cup of coffee with cream on top?

“People who have, get more. People who have not, try to get heard.”

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