Historic factors place sidewalk project on hold

NEW CUMBERLAND-A project to make the sidewalks on Second Avenue handicapped-accessible is on hold while the state determines the historic value of the neighborhood targeted for the improvements.

Officials with the State Historic Preservation Office recently discovered diamond-shaped stamps in the sidewalk containing the letters “WPA,” which stands for Works Progress Administration.

The WPA, a government agency created by order of President Franklin Roosevelt, employed millions of people in public works projects during the Great Depression. It existed from 1935 to 1943.

The WPA stamps suggest that the New Cumberland sidewalks were built by WPA laborers sometime in the 1930s.

While New Cumberland Mayor Richard Blackwell understands the historic significance of the stamps, he’s frustrated that the sidewalk improvement project has languished in bureaucratic limbo for more than two years.

“I guess those little diamonds are more important than someone tripping over a curb,” Blackwell said. “They’ve been sitting on our money for two years now to get this review OK’d.”

The project would install ramps at all four corners of the Second Avenue intersections with Sedgwick, Grant, Lincoln, Porter and Marshall streets, and the intersection of Third Avenue and Porter Street.

Blackwell said the whole city has been targeted for handicapped-accessible improvements, but the available funding is enough for about 45 ramps.

“We have a lot of older people,” he said. “It’s difficult for people on crutches or in wheelchairs, even powered wheelchairs.” Blackwell noted that city Councilman Jack “Art” Watson gets around in a wheelchair.

Funding for the $160,410 project would come primarily from the Federal Highway Administration’s Transportation Enhancement Program, with the city of New Cumberland contributing 20 percent.

Blackwell said the design drawings, prepared by LBRA Architecture of Weirton, and the bid package are complete. “The city will bid it out as soon as we get the OK to bid it out,” he said.

That OK will have to wait until the historic preservation office completes its review, said Caryn Gresham, spokeswoman for the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.

The state agency first reviewed the project in 2010, concluding there was no archaeological reason not to proceed but that, from an architectural standpoint, the neighborhood could be eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, Gresham said.

“We had no objection to the project progressing to the design phase,” she said. “We told the Division of Highways at the time that they could proceed with the design stage, and, when completed, if they would send it to us, we would again review it to make sure the changes to the sidewalk did not adversely affect the historic integrity of the property.”

Gresham said the agency is still waiting to see the design information.

The discovery of the WPA stamps, which happened more recently, would “add to the case for eligibility” for inclusion on the National Register, she said.

“That is historic,” Blackwell said. “I won’t dispute that. At the most, we might disturb two (stamps).”

Blackwell said he plans to discuss the matter with state officials in Charleston this weekend, when he and city Councilman Shawn Marks attend the West Virginia Municipal League’s annual Mid-Winter Municipal Day.

“I’m kind of hoping I can make it to the (historic preservation) office and try prodding a little bit in person-hoping it might do some good,” he said.