Belle Meade, a satellite community of CEOs, doctors, lawyers, and people who have married well, has long battled the stereotype of being a snobby and insular city. Right now, they’re losing that fight.
Last week, the city hosted a town hall meeting at Saint George’s Episcopal Church to discuss four farsighted proposals to make Belle Meade Boulevard safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestriansmany of whom hail from outside the satellite community’s tony borders. But more than a few residents objected. One even said that the city shouldn’t spend a “bloody dime” making the street more attractive to outsiders. That comment provoked hearty applause.
Boyd Bogle, an architect and resident of Belle Meade, is one of those people who spoke at the meeting, which 200 people attended. (At that gathering, interested citizens were told to give their name and their Belle Meade address, which discouraged outsiders from speaking.) At any rate, Bogle says the city should accommodate walkers and joggers, because the majority of them live in the satellite community. But he has little regard for people on bikes, who, in his eyes, might as well be illegal immigrants slyly evading border patrol.
“I don’t think we should spend our money to have more cyclists use the Boulevard,” he says. “We have too many as it is. It’s amazing we haven’t had a serious accident yet.”
Bogle and others say that the city should do what it can to discourage cyclists from using the Boulevard. “I definitely think that cyclists should have to pay a user fee to use the Boulevard. And it should be very expensive, except for the residents of Belle Meade.”
When asked if he felt that others might view that comment as, well, rather exclusive, he replied, “I could care less.”
For sure, Bogle does not speak for all of Belle Meade. Emily Bruno, a cyclist and 19-year resident of the city, says that many of her neighbors want to accommodate cyclists, pedestrians, and runners alike. “We are not a gated community; we are a part of a larger city,” she says. “I think we have to rise to the occasion to make it safe for other people.”
But if Bruno is part of the majority, it’s a relatively silent one. It was Bogle’s comment at last week’s meeting that drew the applause. And that’s why local bikers and runners are concerned.
“We’re very worried in large part because some Belle Meade residents made statements that suggest that they may want to prevent people from outside the city from cycling, running, or walking on Belle Meade Boulevard,” says John Norris, an attorney and cycling advocate. He notes that the street serves as an entrance to Percy Warner Park, which is maintained by Metro. “It would be a huge loss if our right to use the Boulevard were curtailed in some way.”
City officials say that they are considering no such restrictions. And, in fact, they say the safety measures they discussed would be a boon to all cyclists, runners, and walkers.
Hodgson & Douglas, a landscape architecture firm, has worked with Belle Meade to improve the city’s signature thoroughfare. At last week’s meeting, the partners revealed four separate proposals. Option A, arguably the least controversial of the four, involves creating a trail or walkway down the existing median. Options B and C call for closing one lane in each direction and reserving them for cyclists, runners, and pedestrians. Those two options, which differ slightly, probably will be the most controversial and certainly the most expensive. Finally, the last option leaves all four lanes of traffic open, while demarcating a separate thin lane for recreational use.
Runners and bikers welcome each of the proposals. But given the controversy they have engendered, they’re staying pretty quiet. “I haven’t heard a whole lot from runners,” says Dave Graeflin, owner of The Athlete’s House. “It’s only unsafe when the people who use it don’t use common sense, and that doesn’t happen that much.”
“I just don’t think it’s that critical an issue,” says local triathlete Reed Trickett. “It’s never that crowded with bikers, and most of the bikers are pretty savvy.”
Belle Meade officials have labored over the Boulevard’s dangers, both real and imagined, for nearly three years. While they have been slow to do anything, they insist that the heavy use of the street by athletes creates hazardous conditions. “It’s not a safe situation,” says City Manager Beth Reardon. “You have cyclists who are two and three abreast on the right lane, and you have women pushing baby carriages. Cars and bicyclists especially just don’t mix on the Boulevard. Someone is going to get hurt or killed.” In fact, several years ago, a car struck a cyclist at night, causing serious injuries.
Interestingly, the one option not discussed may be the easiest of alllowering the speed limit from 40 miles per hour to 35. Of course, that might be too simple a solution for a city that seems to want a big change.
“They keep talking about how there is going to be an accident, but the major problem is the speed of the drivers,” says John Gilbert, a retired insurance executive and resident of Belle Meade. “If they would ever cut the speed limit down they would reduce the hazard of a bad accident.”
Sometime this spring, the city’s three commissioners, who have battled chronic charges of conflicts-of-interest, inappropriate spending, and cronyism, are supposed to vote on what to do with the Boulevard. Nobody is holding their breath that they’ll make things better. In the meantime, bikers, and runners from Antioch to Clarksville will continue to use the streetat their own risk.
Tisk tisk tisk
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