A $900,000 sidewalk program in Fuquay-Varina is moving forward, the first step in what officials say is the coming transformation of a working-class neighborhood near downtown.
“I think people five years from now will really be amazed at how this side of town is coming back to life,” said Charlie Adcock, the mayor pro tem.
The neighborhood is around Lincoln Heights Elementary School. The sidewalks will extend from the school to Academy Street, passing dozens of homes along the way. Many of the homes are as old or older than the school, which turned 50 this year.
The homes closest to the school are a mix of wood, bricks or cinder blocks and are mostly small, one-story houses on wooded lots.
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There are also two new neighborhoods closer to Academy Street with two-story homes on tiny, manicured lots, with childrens’ toys dotting many front yards.
There are some sidewalks by the newer neighborhoods, but those aren’t connected to either the school or Academy Street. The project will fill in the gaps.
Eighty percent of the project is paid for by a federal grant. The town will pay $181,000.
It’s not clear when the work might be complete, but Thursday afternoon, several women waiting on children coming home from school said they are excited to hear about the sidewalks, whenever they might get built.
The gaps to be filled by the sidewalks include the street’s namesake bridge, as well as several lots where pedestrians have to choose between walking in the road, in a ditch or in someone’s yard a few feet from the front door.
It’s about a half a mile from Lincoln Heights to Academy Street. Once at Academy Street, Fleming Loop Recreation Park is a half mile to the west, and downtown is a half mile to the east, with restaurants, stores and other amenities like the food pantry, the Department of Motor Vehicles, banks, churches and the library.
Lincoln Heights Elementary Principal Todd Baulch said some of the school’s students who live just over the bridge would probably walk to and from school, but they aren’t allowed to because it’s too dangerous.
Instead, a bus ferries them a few hundred feet from their homes to the school. Students typically aren’t allowed to use a bus if they live within a mile and a half of school, Baulch said. But the bridge and its lack of sidewalks creates an exemption.
“Sweet, bring it on,” said Baulch when told about the incoming sidewalks. “Because that is a serious issue.”
If other plans go well, this won’t be the only project near Lincoln Heights.
Mayor John Byrne said the town might consider taking control of Bridge Street so that repaving, repainting and repairs could be done more quickly than the street’s current owner, the State of North Carolina, has done.
There also could be a walking and biking path along Washington Street near the school, once the final section of Judd Parkway is built and Washington Street is extended to connect with Judd Parkway. Washington Street now ends at Lincoln Heights.
The town is also about to resurface the tennis courts at nearby Action Park, and Byrne has said he wants a crosswalk in front of Lincoln Heights Elementary.
There is somewhat of a crosswalk already, but it’s just two small lines on the road. Baulch also said he wants something that stands out more.
Walking to school
The town’s unanimous approval of the sidewalks came the same day that the Wake County Public School System announced Lincoln Heights will help pilot a new program called Safe Routes to Schools.
The Safe Routes program isn’t related to the town’s sidewalk initiative, despite the timing. The school program is funded through a John Rex Foundation grant.
The school program is aimed at curbing childhood obesity.
“Currently, only 4 percent of North Carolina students walk or bike to school at least once per week, and 58 percent of North Carolina elementary students aren’t getting the physical activity they need,” school officials said in a news release.
But it’s not a simple task for an elementary school student to walk home from school, even when there are sidewalks around.
They’re only allowed to walk if they live within a small radius of the school, no big roads or bridges are in the way, and they have written permission from their parents. And if their parents don’t show up after school to accompany them home, teachers don’t let the students walk alone. Instead they’re brought back inside.
“A student can’t just come up and say, ‘Hey Miss Smith, I’m gonna walk today,’ ” said Audra Holland, a receptionist at Lincoln Heights.
The number of students who walk home from Lincoln Heights varies, but on Thursday, 22 children walked. They were accompanied by teachers armed with handheld stop signs.
Baulch said he hopes part of the Safe Routes program includes funding for a crossing guard, so teachers don’t have to play that role while also trying to keep track of other students.
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran