F Street Limbo

After two bitter years, a breakthrough on the barrier issue could come this month

Interstate 15 looms above the cul de sac at the corner of F Street and McWilliams Avenue, blocking a large swath of the southern sky. The half-finished Symphony Park development glimmers just beyond the highway, a world apart from F Street, the thoroughfare that once traversed West Las Vegas, tunneled beneath I-15 and connected the largely black community to downtown. The F Street underpass is now barricaded, and what was once the gateway to West Las Vegas is now a solid wall of dirt.

Credit: Anthony MairDespite the passage of Assembly Bill 304, F Street remains cut off from downtown.

F Street closed in the summer of 2008, seemingly overnight. Bulldozers and construction workers appeared, and though residents in the area first thought the work was related to the expansive I-15 widening project, they quickly realized what was happening: The street was being shut down—permanently.

The F Street closure has had a variety of effects, large and small, on residents. For Saul Willis, a mechanic who runs an automotive shop from his home, the closure’s impact on his life, home and business has been dramatic.

“It usually took me five minutes to go downtown or get auto parts,” Willis says. “Now it takes me 30 minutes. I bought my house on this street because the street was open. When they closed the street, the value of my house went down, the value of my property went down, the value of everything went down.”

Last May, the Legislature passed Assembly Bill 304, which ordered F Street be reopened, though no deadline was set, and mandated that the city and Nevada Department of Transportation find funding for the project. F Street residents rejoiced, but a year later, the wall remains and it is still unclear how the project will be funded.

For longtime residents of West Las Vegas, the closure is about more than inconvenience. It’s about principles and a history of discrimination dating back decades, says writer, activist and Stop the F Street Closure coalition leader Trish Geran.

“F Street’s closure symbolizes a noninclusiveness,” Geran says. “It symbolizes that, ‘We have no plans for you. You are actually in the way. You’re an eyesore, so it’s better to close you off so none of your types or the scene of your whole community won’t be seen in the new vision we have for the new downtown.’”

Assembly Bill 304 specifies that the Las Vegas Redevelopment Agency will provide $2.5 million for the reopening project, and the city will contribute $20 million from property taxes beginning in 2011. Last September, NDOT applied for the federal Transportation Investment to Generate Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant, requesting $32.5 million for the F Street reopening project, but the application wasn’t selected. Jenica Finnerty, NDOT senior project manager, says the department is planning to apply for a second TIGER grant. Applications for that grant are due Aug. 23.

The city recently hired engineering firm PBS&J to complete 30 percent of the initial design by next spring. NDOT and the city plan to hold two public meetings this month and two public workshops in June with engineers from PBS&J. The goal of these meetings and workshops is for residents to discuss what they expect to see when F Street reopens.

Until the project’s design is complete, the timeline of F Street’s reopening is unknown, as is the project’s cost. Estimates range from $20 million to $70 million, but state Sen. Steven Horsford, a West Las Vegas native who championed the reopening of F Street in the Legislature, says he anticipates the cost of the project will fall toward the low end of the spectrum.

“In today’s economy, with the cost of labor and the cost of materials at their lowest point, this project should cost a lot less than people projected a year or so ago,” he says. “Until we know how much the project will actually cost, it’s premature to criticize it.”

The city originally planned to hire an outside public relations firm to keep community members abreast of the project’s progress, but David Riggleman, the city’s communications director, says proposed budget cuts led the council to decide that it was “counterintuitive to them to be eliminating positions on the one hand while you’re contracting out work on the other.” The city’s Office of Communications will be responsible for community outreach, and plans to use social media, traditional media, direct mail, fliers and door-hangers to publicize meetings and provide updates on the project.

Geran says West Las Vegas residents are wary of the city’s outreach efforts due to the lack of notification when F Street was closed. Riggleman says he acknowledges that errors were made and a lack of sensitivity displayed when the street was closed, though his office was not responsible for outreach at that time.

As plans to reopen F Street develop, attorney Matthew Callister is continuing to pursue legal action on behalf of the F Street coalition and residents to ensure that NDOT and the city comply with federal anti-discrimination and environmental justice laws. The Southern Nevada Enterprise Community Board’s F Street Planning subcommittee also will monitor the project as it progresses and report to the community as developments occur.

And as more buildings grow beyond the dirt embankment on the corner of F Street and McWilliams, West Las Vegas residents hope that reopening F Street will spur more development within the historic community.

“We want this area to be as thriving as what’s going on on the other side of F Street at Symphony Park, where there’s so much focus and attention,” Horsford says. “We believe that all areas of Las Vegas and Southern Nevada should be thriving, not just certain parts.”

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