The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

August 29, 2009

Beckley Intermodal Gateway

City leaders have BIG plans for downtown

Amelia A. Pridemore

Beckley city leaders want to give the downtown a shot in the arm — a “BIG” one.

Construction for the Beckley Intermodal Gateway (BIG), a downtown transportation and revitalization project, is slated to begin in early 2010. City officials, concerned citizens, architects and engineers have hashed and re-hashed ideas for the $24 million facility funded primarily through a Federal Transit Authority (FTA) Grant for at least three years. Finally, the ideas are designs on paper, and city officials are gearing up to “move dirt.”

BIG, which will be surrounded by Robert C. Byrd Drive, Prince Street, Neville Street and Leslie C. Gates Place, is primarily designed to provide transportation upgrades, but it could become something much larger. A proposed second phase could bring new government, economic development and tourism offices and retail space. Also, designers hope the buildings will be sustainable “green” infrastructure while still meshing well with neighboring historic buildings.



The long road



Officially, the BIG project began in August 2006, when Congressman Nick Rahall and Beckley Mayor Emmett Pugh announced that Rahall’s office helped secure an earmarked $20 million from the FTA. The city was required to provide 20 percent in matching funds.

New York-based PB Americas, formerly known as Parsons Brinckerhoff, is providing architectural and engineering services. The firm is no stranger to the city of Beckley, said PB’s David Hafley, project manager. Its other projects in Beckley include the new visitors center at the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine, a parking analysis for downtown and various Coal Heritage Trail initiatives. Altogether, PB has worked in the region for about 20 years.

Atlanta-based Niles Bolton Associates is also providing architectural services.

Even before plans were officially announced, BIG had been in the works for some time, Hafley said. Forward Southern West Virginia developed the concept, which was developed into a tentative master plan. This was crucial in FTA awarding the grant funds.

“The primary objectives are for this to be a catalyst for investment and revitalization, to improve public facilities and have a better place for public events and to better utilize a underutilized space in downtown,” he said. “This will also improve the arrival point from Harper Road.

“This project will be the largest public investment in downtown Beckley since the construction of the Robert C. Byrd Federal Courthouse. This will create areas for investment and improve facilities for the workforce currently in downtown. It’s a real platform for revitalization, and it will complement other projects, like development on Neville Street, the courthouse annex and Mountain State University’s continued investment. This will be good for downtown Beckley.”

Project planners wanted the process to be open, making an effort to listen to all voices in the Beckley area, Hafley said. Numerous residents attended community meetings. Comments were reviewed “thoughtfully” as PB crafted the project’s master plan. Council members unanimously approved that plan earlier this year. The FTA also gave that a thumbs up.

At the beginning, various business and community leaders were appointed to a steering committee, and the ideas for what should be built on the site — which were all over the map — began to flow. These included observation towers, NASCAR, sporting facilities, skating rinks, a retro-style facility resembling an old coal mining town and various tourism/entertainment outlets.

Citizens began to weigh in during multiple community forums at the Beckley-Raleigh County Armory. Many wanted to see a better nightlife and better retail options in the downtown.

However, FTA requirements presented planners, government officials and citizens a major dose of reality that, initially, was hard for some to swallow. FTA’s interest is transportation improvement, and this agency has to give the green light for any project receiving $20 million of its money.

Even the mayor’s initial wishes were not granted.

“What did I want to see? I wanted to see an IMAX theater in there, but the FTA wouldn’t fund it,” Pugh said in January. “We had ideas about NASCAR broached — several things. In the long run, they’re nice, but they’re not fundable. This can be done, though, through the private sector once the city provides infrastructure.”

Planners and city officials later agreed on a “Phase 1” of the project that would include transit and parking facilities and a public open space/community gathering area.

In March, the state Department of Transportation awarded the city $2.7 million in toll revenue credits. That, combined with the site’s $2.3 million land value, gave the city its entire local match.

Jim Sothen, deputy state highway engineer of development, said last year that toll revenue credits are given by the federal government when the state uses its own funds on “major capital improvements” on a federal toll road. He noted these credits are not coming from money motorists pay to travel the West Virginia Turnpike. That money goes toward turnpike maintenance.

The original amount of the state’s toll revenue credits was more than $100 million, Sothen said.

While he did not know the exact amount of toll credits left, he said a “large portion” remains available.



Status and game plan



Right now, BIG is in the architectural and engineering phase, scheduled for completion in the latter part of the year. Hafley said that phase is about 30 percent complete. The project should be ready for construction bids Dec. 4. Local officials will have more opportunities to review work done and provide comments until then.

Phase 1 should be complete by spring 2011.

The BIG project will be anchored by a transit facility on the Prince Street side, Hafley said. The city is working with the Raleigh County Community Action Association, and the latter will have a facility in the building. This will also make the project consistent with FTA’s goal of improving public transportation.

Greyhound, Hafley noted, may also move its operations there. Several meetings have been conducted to help make this happen. Last year, Greyhound moved its Beckley station from Third Avenue to Neville Street; however, construction on the judicial annex now is preventing buses from accessing the new station. BIG’s location would be consistent with Greyhound’s desire to remain downtown.

The facility will also improve downtown parking. Phase 1 will include a two-level parking garage with 300 covered, lighted and secure parking spaces. If growth would spark a need for even more parking, as many as three other levels could be added to the garage later. The garage would be accessible from both Neville and Prince streets.

BIG will also include a civic plaza/public meeting space, which Hafley said would be an excellent spot for a farmers’ market. Popular downtown events like Chili Night could be moved to this area.

“We’re anxious to get (construction) started,” Pugh said. “Hopefully, by this time next year, the ground will be flying, and we will have this well under way.”

Hafley acknowledged construction would interrupt downtown parking, particularly for a large number of state and federal workers who rent spaces at the BIG site. The city’s parking commission is working with representatives of those employees to find interim parking locations, and the city wants to minimize the impact as much as it can.



Going green?



Project engineers have said they want to have LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. LEED is a “green” building rating system providing standards for environmentally sustainable construction. LEED has four levels of certification, depending on how environmentally friendly a building is. From lowest to highest, the ratings are “certified,” “silver,” “gold” and “platinum.”

Hafley said the designers’ goal is LEED-silver certification. But if funding is available, they will try for a higher level.

Right now, designers have identified a number of points they could use to pursue the LEED certification, said Niles Bolton’s Lester Love. Designers are committed to having that certification, and it is presently budgeted.

This could make the project a state standout, according to Hafley.

“West Virginia has relatively few LEED-certified buildings. There will be more as institutions develop,” he said. “But this is important because this will be a highly visible, public-oriented facility. This could become a model for sustainable practices in southern West Virginia.”

Several “green” elements could make a building LEED certified, Hafley said. These can include building materials, like using ones that are available locally or by recycling old ones. An example of this is a plan to use stones from the old Frontier Hotel. This would also help the project better fit in with historic downtown buildings.

A building can also become LEED certified with more energy-efficient utility and heating/air conditioning systems, he said. Measures to reduce the amount of stormwater runoff and improve that water’s quality are viewed highly, as well.

Going green has both environmental and financial benefits in the long run. Hafley said more sustainable buildings generally have reduced maintenance costs for their entire life cycles.

“We certainly want to be a leader in both West Virginia and southern West Virginia, and we hope we are fortunate enough to get the funding to become LEED certified,” Pugh said. “That would be a win, win for everyone — a major positive.”

The state recently received more than $10 million from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, commonly known as the federal “stimulus”) for green infrastructure projects. Beckley leaders are pursuing a portion of this funding to pay for what is needed to make BIG buildings LEED certified.

“I’m not sure exactly how much it would cost. At one point, it was anywhere from $2 (million) to $4 million,” Pugh said. “That may not be feasible, and a lot of this will depend on the number of projects.

“But we’re already ahead of the curve with all the planning we have done.

“Naturally, this is something we would like to have. The funding is already there for the project (if it does not become LEED certified), but we want to take that extra step and become LEED certified.”

Pugh noted energy-efficient buildings could result in long-term cost savings. Once BIG is constructed, the city then has to pay to maintain it. Ultimately, efficiency could save the city money in utility costs. He praised PB’s work toward LEED certification, but noted Luke Richmond and Jeremiah Johnson of the city’s Sanitary Board have been working to get PB over the necessary hurdles in submitting what is needed to the state.



Cutting-edge,

with a nod to the past



While designers hope the facility will be cutting-edge, they also want it to be a nod to the region’s past. The parking garage’s stairwell has an arch designed to resemble a coal tipple. Building materials, like brick, will mesh with the rest of the downtown.

“The architecture will invoke the heritage and character of the area — like the coal industry,” Hafley said. “It will not be out-of-character. It will be a functional and attractive project that still reflects the history of the region.”

“That’s one of the things we have to provide historical context,” Love said, when asked about the coal tipple design. “We wanted to be sensitive to that in our design. For us, this is a nod to the area’s history and roots in the coal mining industry.

“We hope to be able to reuse the stone from the old Frontier Hotel. We have looked at what can be re-used and what can be used to represent the past. We want the Phase 1 facility to compliment the downtown and be a good neighbor.”

Phase 2?



While city officials are confident the Phase 1 facility can stand on its own, they are still working to obtain additional funds to construct a second phase.

Phase 2, if constructed, will be an extension and enlargement of the first phase’s transit facility, Hafley said. This would include a structure at the corner of Neville Street and Leslie C. Gates Place that would house a new municipal complex, an economic development/tourism center and possible space for National Park Service staff. BIG planners have discussed moving some New River Gorge National River offices to the location, but there is no formal agreement with NPS.

A pedestrian bridge linking the rest of the downtown to BIG is also planned for Phase 2.

Officials have approached Rahall with their plans, and the congressman is receptive.

“The BIG Project is going to be a central anchor for downtown Beckley, but it can be bigger. We are finishing engineering work and scheduled to begin construction in February 2010 with funds I secured in the last transportation bill,” Rahall said in a statement. “Phase 2 would build on the transportation hub concept we envisioned for Beckley's gateway.

“I’m working to include high priority project funding in the amount of $22,450,000 to design and construct Phase 2 through the next bill, which is being crafted in the coming months . ... It’s going to be a very tight funding process and my request faces many hurdles, but I will keep working.”

Pugh said the city keeps Rahall’s office up-to-date with BIG’s progress, and the city administration appreciates Rahall making BIG a priority.

“Of course, the congressman has been a huge proponent of this project,” Pugh said. “He realizes what this means for downtown and the area, in general. We really appreciate his efforts.”

— E-mail: apridemore@register-herald.com