Archive for Friday, July 25, 2008

Downtown make over is finally completed

July 25, 2008

Baldwin City's historic downtown received a $1.8 million face-lift this past year.

The idea was hatched back in 2003, and it's been a long process to transform the sidewalks that border the famed brick streets into more appealing and handicap-accessible areas. But, the results are finally here for the Downtown Streetscape Project that was launched in full when construction began in June 2007.

"I've heard a lot of positive comments about the downtown this spring," said City Administrator Jeff Dingman. "When it first started, people had concerns about the bulbouts at the corners, but I think now that its complete, they can see why that was done.

"The community, as a whole, has been very supportive and understanding of this process and how construction projects are a necessary evil when doing this type of improvement," Dingman said.

The idea started with downtown business owners wanting to add trees in the area. It grew from there, and a plan was developed to do more than that and bring the area into compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

A grant was applied for in 2004 and approved in 2005. The Kansas Department of Transportation agreed to fund 80 percent of the project, with the city coming up with the remainder. However, it would be two more years before the project was started because of a lack of bids by contractors.

The only bid received initially was for more than $2.2 million and rejected. The project was scaled back and sent out for bids again. Bryant and Bryant Construction of Halstead was awarded the project with the $1.8 million price tag. Nearly a year later, the project is all but complete.

"I am proud of how this project has taken shape," Dingman said. "It really started as a grass-roots effort to make the downtown more inviting and pedestrian-friendly.

"Both mayors and all of the city council people involved over the course of the project have been very supportive of the project and excited about it and what it can do for Baldwin City," he said. "All of the downtown business owners have been very understanding through the construction."

Now all that remains are a few loose ends.

"We still need to come up with the banners for the lamp posts and the plaques for the columns around the fountain," said Dingman. "We have some ideas for those things and getting them done will be the finishing touches on the project."

The project replaced sidewalks and curbs and added other elements, such as new streetlights on High Street from Sixth to Eighth streets and on Eighth Street from Grove to half a block south of High Street.

A parking lot was also added south of High Street, just west of Eighth Street. But that's not all by a long shot.

"Included in the final design are several functional and aesthetic improvements," Dingman said. "Split-level sidewalks in some areas provide better accessibility to all downtown buildings, as well as provide accessibility from the street. These split-level walks are divided by stone and iron walls and fences that were done to reflect the styles used in some of Baker University's landmark buildings.

"A plaza at the intersection of Eighth and High includes a fountain given to Baker University by the community in honor of its sesquicentennial, which is being celebrated this year," he said. "This fountain was a late addition to this project, but is a perfect complement to what we are trying to achieve."

A long process

Downtown businesses have been affected when the sidewalks in front of them were removed and replaced. There were concerns over the project from the beginning, but patience prevailed.

"I have said the same thing all along - maintenance is good. All we needed were sidewalks and curbs," said Martha Wright, owner of Whitney's Creative Design, a beauty and barbershop her father built at the corner of Seventh and High in 1966. "But we're waiting to see the benefits and the positive side. The new lights are putting out good light. I'm pleased with that. There are a lot of things I'm not pleased with."

She was not surprised at the length of the project, especially because it had to be shut down for three weeks around the Maple Leaf Festival. The nasty winter weather this year didn't help, either.

"It was a mess," Wright said. "Everyone knows that. The mud was a mess. We're all saying the same thing. It slowed our business down."

She's also concerned about the ADA improvements, which have changed the ways those with disabilities must traverse downtown.

"I think it's ADA-compliant, just like it's supposed to be, but it's not handicapped-friendly," she said, noting that they must walk further to ramps, etc., than they used to.

But, she also admits that there have been improvements made and she's taking a wait-and-see attitude on what it will mean for businesses. Dingman says it's hoped that the project will spark additions downtown and bring more people.

"We hope that the improvements will inspire businesses to want to locate downtown and also inspire residents and visitors to spend time walking through the downtown and visiting the restaurants and shops," Dingman said.

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