Walkability – Enhancing the Pedestrian Experience in Downtown New Bern

James Reed Lane
James Reed Lane in 2021

To create a downtown that will attract a diverse concentrated mix of uses and foster economic interaction among these uses, it is essential to encourage people through the downtown core on foot by establishing an attractive system of pedestrian connections. Pedestrian connections create a strong sense of community and walkability, an important goal in the downtown revitalization effort.

According to the summary of existing conditions in the 1977 Downtown Revitalization Plan, pedestrian access from the mid-block parking lots to the shops that fronted Middle, Pollock and Craven Streets were inadequate, in some cases dangerous and generally unattractive. To achieve walkability, the 1977 Plan proposed an open space system for the entire redevelopment effort starting at the bulkhead of the urban renewal property along the Trent River and continuing along the Neuse River to connect with the historic residential and commercial district. The Plan envisioned connecting mid-block parking lots to shopping streets, creating additional walking path systems through the city that would extend out to the water’s edge (Riverwalk) system.

The first mid-block pedestrian park, created in 1981 with Municipal Service District (MSD) funds (an additional tax paid by downtown property owners for public improvements) was Bear Plaza which connected to the newly constructed interior parking lot referred to as Federal Alley. The 1990 Urban Design Plan, initiated and coordinated by Swiss Bear in partnership with the City, reiterated the importance of pedestrian connections and recommended existing through-block pedestrian connections be improved, enhanced and constructed when the opportunity arose.

Old Pool Hall Room now site of James Reed Lane
Old Pool Hall Room now site of James Reed Lane

As a result, Church Alley (between Remax and Tom’s Coins), the walkway between First Baptist Church and O. Marks, and the walkway along the Century 21 building from South Front into the interior Federal Alley parking area and the alley between Morgan’s Tavern and the adjacent building were improved to include paving, some with lighting and landscaping. However, a pedestrian connection was still needed on Pollock Street.

In 1994, when Swiss Bear heard the owner of the old pool hall was considering selling it, with approval from the Municipal Service District Advisory Committee and the City, Swiss Bear Board member Stewart Smith approached the owner and worked out an agreement for the City to purchase the building. Acquiring this property was a goal for the creation of a through-block pedestrian linkage onto Pollock Street as recommended in the 1990 Urban Design Plan. This small one-story building was in poor repair, without architectural distinction and its removal would allow a dramatic direct view of the steeple of the Episcopal Church, mirroring the view of the First Baptist through Church Alley.

Swiss Bear hired Allison Platt & Associates to design a plan for the space with plantings, old brick from the streets of New Bern, streetlights, benches and a three-tier fountain. Following demolition of the old building by the City, the project was put on hold as the MSD funds were committed for streetscape improvements to the 100/200 blocks of Middle Street.

James Reed Lane
James Reed Lane

Swiss Bear met the challenge to move the project forward and worked to raise funds and find an appropriate name for the mid-block pedestrian park. The late, Reverend Edward Sharp, Christ Episcopal Church had been a strong supporter of the revitalization effort and Swiss Bear. When I asked for his assistance to recommend a name for the park, he spent a great deal of time researching the project. Through his efforts, the New Bern Board of Aldermen approved our request to name the park James Reed Lane in memory and honor of this 18th century pioneer in public education. After 230 years, the Reverend James Reed, first rector of Christ Church received belated public recognition for his role in establishing in New Bern, North Carolina’s first incorporated school in 1764.

The City agreed to provide the labor for development of the space, and we initiated a campaign to raise funds to pay for construction materials, streetlights, benches and planting materials and successfully raised $60,000 with Reverend Sharp’s support. Additional funding for the beautiful three-tier cast iron fountain was contributed by Dr. and Mrs. Harry MacDonald in honor of his parents, Mr. and Mrs. H.J. MacDonald. John C. Thomas constructed the abstract wood wall hanging and donated and placed the brownstone plaque in the sidewalk that recognizes the MacDonald’s contribution. Contributors to the project are listed on a bronze plaque on the brick wall facing the park.

The dedication celebration held February 25th was well attended. In addition to remarks from Reverend Sharp, the Swiss Bear Director and Chairman, Patrick Dorsey, North Carolina Secretary of Cultural Resources was the keynote speaker.

This development of this mid-block pedestrian park was another amenity that enhanced the “walkability and sense of place” of our historic downtown. Downtown now offers a sense of place with a mix of restaurants, retail, galleries, attractions, offices, parks and housing that promote interaction. Since the downtown economy thrives on accessibility, networking, creativity and a sense of community, the numerous pedestrian connections play a vital role since interaction is key.

Susan Moffat-Thomas




By Susan Moffat-Thomas