West Ashley's linear parks might see a facelift in the near future that would improve their appeal and functionality.

The Charleston Parks Conservancy partnered with the city last week for a series of meetings in which the public could comment on possible renovations to the West Ashley Bikeway and Greenway — long parks built on former railroad beds. 

At the first meeting, more than 100 people answered presenters' questions using digital response cards. Many identified general safety, especially where these two parks intersect with streets, as a top priority for improvements.

The audience also was asked what might make them use the two parks more frequently. Safer crossings and connections received 46 percent of the vote, the most of the six choices. The Bikeway crosses bustling Saint Andrews Boulevard, and the connection between the two parks requires traversing the equally busy Savannah Highway. 

Increased shade area and more space to bike or walk received 28 percent and 22 percent, respectively. 

Other possible changes proposed included expanding the Greenway's width, adding lighting and incorporating public art.

"I've been here every day," West Ashley resident Jim Ward said. "This stuff is cool, man. It doesn't get any better than this."

Ward, an assistant professor in the College of Charleston's Department of Art and Architectural History, said he was surprised by the other attendees' enthusiasm for the project and liked the idea of remodeling an area built around bicycling and walking. 

Finding connections

The future improvements gained momentum from the West Ashley Master Plan, which singles out the two linear parks as priorities.

The city of Charleston has committed $75,000 for the planning process. Charleston Parks Conservancy Executive Director Harry Lesesne said the nonprofit committed more money than that but declined to say how much much more, citing privacy.

The West Ashley Bikeway is built on an old railroad right of way stretching between Higgins Pier on the Ashley River and where Wappoo Road meets Savannah Highway. The longer Greenway runs south of and parallel to Savannah Highway between Albemarle Road and Main Road.

There isn't currently a good connection between the two. Bikers and pedestrians have to cross both the congested Savannah Highway and a busy section of Wappoo Road to get from the Bikeway to the Greenway.

As mentioned at the presentations, the Greenway is considered part of a larger path, the East Coast Greenway, an emerging coastal path that its advocates hope will eventually run from Maine to Florida. The West Ashley Greenway is the longest stretch of the path in South Carolina that doesn't share a road with cars. 

Neighborhood connectivity was the goal when the parks were developed in the 1980s during the tenure of Mayor Joe Riley, who said last week that the ongoing planning process was an opportunity to transform the Bikeway and Greenway into even more substantial amenities for the community. 

"You can move from one neighborhood to another to another to another and another, without coming onto and having to go along a busy highway," Riley said.

Added amenities and safety

Some of the same firms contracted to craft a framework for the redevelopment also worked on West Ashley Master Plan. After a two-day site visit in May, planners identified a need to address deteriorating pavement, challenging street crossings, narrow trails and a need for a standalone Ashley River crossing — the last part receiving applause from the room. 

Any framework crafted so far is in its draft stage, and planners have set a general fall deadline to present a prioritized development plan to the city. 

"This is the end of the very beginning of the process," Charleston Parks Director Jason Kronsberg said. 

Some attendees seemed skeptical both about proposing changes to traffic signals or signs on the roads that intersect with the parks, pointing to the fact that most of the streets are owned by the state Department of Transportation.

"Again, these are just ideas," Daniel Ashworth of Alta Planning and Design told the audience Thursday. "We're asking for your reaction."

In addition to the electronic voting, planners brought poster boards with various options for providing shade, lighting, pavement, signs and other features. Attendees at last week's meetings used stickers to identify natural tree canopies as their preferred shade method and bollards as their preferred method of lighting.

"It's going to take a while to pull all this off, but it is going to be so cool," Mayor John Tecklenburg told the audience Thursday.

For people who didn't use the Q&A session to voice their concerns or give suggestions, planners put out a piece of paper where they were free to write their thoughts.

One person wrote how they liked the option of rebranding the Bikeway to the "Maryville Bikeway" to distinguish it from the Greenway. Another wrote that they wanted to see arrows on the paths directing pedestrians and cyclists to prevent collisions.

There were also a few notes about crime and safety. "More police on foot," one person wrote.

In addition to functional changes to the two parks, planners demonstrated how the surrounding aesthetics could change. They proposed widening the paths but also left open the possibility of separate walkways off the bike paths where space allowed it and community gardens along the length of the Greenway. 

The Parks Conservancy received a $50,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to fund public art. On Thursday multidisciplinary designers Roberto Behar and Rosario Marquardt of R &R Studios presented examples of social sculptures — sculptures that invoke common memories.

One piece of artwork they focused on was an aluminum table that mimicked an indoor one, complete with a laser-cut tablecloth. They designed it for a park in Austin, Texas. 

In addition to the public art grant, the nonprofit Speedwell Foundation pledged $100,000 in 2016 for improvements to both parks.

Those who didn't get a chance to attend last week's meeting are invited to send suggestions and questions to planning@charlestonparksconservancy.org.

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Reach Jesse Naranjo at 843-937-5764. Follow him on Twitter @jesselnaranjo.

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