The trees on the 600 block of Harden Street in Five Points were cut down April 4. (Photo by Riley Edenbeck/Carolina News and Reporter)

Protecting pedestrians and cyclists in Five Points means in part saying goodbye to the trees in the median of Harden Street’s 600 block. 

The work, part of a lane-narrowing project, comes in response to a 2019 transportation study that deemed Harden Street the state’s most dangerous road for pedestrians and bicyclists. Work has begun to build a raised, concrete median and narrow the street from four lanes to two, reducing it to a single-lane of traffic in each direction. Construction should be completed six months from now.

The project, managed by the state Department of Transportation, also will bring more pedestrian crosswalks and bike lanes.

The trees came down April 4, three days after construction began.  

Five Points businessman Richard Burts has had a clear vision of what Five Points should look like for decades. He owns property there, has owned and run businesses there in the past and has been involved in the planning of earlier landscaping projects.

He always has envisioned a well-landscaped, pedestrian-friendly village that prioritized a unified retail scene.

He did not, however, envision the loss of his favorite trees, especially when it’s in exchange for a divisive, raised median.

The trees were planted as part of a $30 million landscaping project 15 years ago, Burts said. He spoke about the trees as if he were losing dear friends. 

“The trees … are our best-performing trees. They’re the prettiest trees,” Burts said just before a saw cut into their trunks. “They’re finally to that point where, (in) the next five years, they’re going to be amazing. … In five years, can you imagine the canopies touching across the street? I mean, how cool would that be?”

DOT’s master plan for the project and the 2019 Road Safety Audit used to plan it don’t include anything about cutting down Harden Street’s trees. Agency spokesperson Kelly Moore said doing so was necessary to complete the project. 

“The removal and replanting of the trees was not possible based on the size and location of the trees,” Moore said in an email. “12 total trees are being removed and will be replaced with 9 semi-mature trees in addition to other plantings including hollies, grasses and flowers.” 

Burts said he suspected the trees would be cut down rather than being replanted elsewhere, despite their youth and flourishing health. 

“Our board vote for this project was 11 to 1,” Burt said. “I was the only one that voted against cutting down the trees. So there are a lot of people that think (the project) is great. I’m not one of them.” 

Matt Dowd, an arborist with Sox & Freeman Tree Expert Co., was saddened by the news, too. 

“The unfortunate truth is that we live in a country that values economic development at all costs,” Dowd said. “If they decide something is going to drive economic growth, … anything that stands in the way doesn’t stand much of a chance. I feel like I’m fighting a losing battle out here trying to keep these things alive while everyone else is just tearing them down.” 

The trees aren’t the only loss the project is causing, Burts said. 

He said he feels the raised medians create a visual divide between one side of Harden Street and the other, detracting from Five Points being pedestrian-friendly above all else. 

The master plan specifies that a median with fencing and landscaping will be installed to prevent mid-block pedestrian crossing in the area. 

“The purpose of the raised median is to encourage pedestrians to utilize the cross walks at the signals,” Moore said. “The additional cross walks were added mid-block to allow pedestrians a safer avenue for accessing business in the area.” 

But instead of allowing college students to use the previous street-level median as a safe haven, Burts said DOT is carrying over the same precedent it set with fences placed on Blossom and Assembly streets. He said both of those plans were not pedestrian-friendly, and neither of those streets is a business district like Five Points.

He thinks the data used in the study from Fall 2019 gave an inaccurate portrayal of the nature of Five Points.

Burts said the DOT was using data from a time when many bars were open until early in the morning and thousands of people were out in the street at night. He looks at all the people enjoying themselves in Five Points now and sees it as exactly what he and his partners tried to accomplish.

He said the way to balance the safety aspect with having that many people in the district is to put pedestrians first. 

“It shouldn’t be a cross-town running through Five Points,” Burts said. “They just looked at it with a safety lens, with no other holistic planning.” 

The landscaping design for the project was decided between DOT, the city of Columbia and the Five Points Association, according to Moore. DOT will be responsible for installing the landscaping in the new medians, and the city will handle their maintenance. 

Signs on Harden Street read “road closed” during Harden Street’s renovation. (Photo by Riley Edenbeck/Carolina News and Reporter)

The median on the 600 block of Harden Street is dug out in preparation to build raised medians with new landscaping. (Photo by Riley Edenbeck/Carolina News and Reporter)

A rendering of the completed renovation project on Harden Street in Five Points, including a bike lane, raised median, new plantings and new crosswalks. (Photo courtesy of South Carolina Department of Transportation/Carolina News and Reporter)