Streetscape Survival, Best Outcomes and Helpful Hints

March 1, 2021
Streetscape Survival, Best Outcomes and Helpful Hints

A streetscape project is costly for a community, stressful for leaders and scary for businesses caught in the middle. While labeled as progress, it can be a challenging time for many. Yet, in the long run, a streetscape project can be a winning situation. Let’s find out how the cities of Nevada, Ottumwa and West Des Moines tackled and survived efforts to improve streets in their downtowns.

Nevada, population 6,798, worked on an area five blocks long by two blocks wide, a block at a time. The project included all new utilities to all buildings, including gas, water, sewer and storm drains. The visible part of the project included bump outs, new sidewalks, street, streetlights, benches and installation of power hook ups on every block for supplying events with power. The City of Nevada and Main Street Nevada worked together on this endeavor. Main Street handled the communication and helped businesses with the loss of access.

All these buildings regained functioning utilities. Previously, they had several buildings that could not use their space due to a failing or a completely failed sewer system. They can now focus on their buildings with this accomplishment.  

They did not have a permanent city administrator for many months so Main Street became even more involved than anticipated. Communication, answering questions and dealing with complaints were added to their daily activities. Thankfully, a city administrator and city communications director were hired, which helped all parties involved. Communication, constant updates and signage were key to survival. Signs warning of construction, offering directions and sandwich boards for the downtown businesses became extremely important.

Ottumwa, population 25,023, started its streetscape project July 8, 2019, with completion on December 28, 2020. It covered a three-block area from 100 to 300 blocks of East Main Street. It was a storefront-to-storefront replacement, including below-ground infrastructure with a new water main, gas, sewer and storm water lines. Above ground enhancements included new streets, sidewalks, permeable pavers at intersections and midblock crossings, decorative brick band in sidewalks with planters, bio swells for storm water collection, LED streetlights, decorative street poles and street furniture, including bike racks, trash cans and benches. Planting included a variety of 82 trees, along with other native plants for visual vibrancy during all seasons.  

Partners included the City of Ottumwa, Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, Ottumwa Water Works, Iowa Economic Development Authority, Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, Area 15 Regional Planning Commission, and Main Street Ottumwa whose primary function was communication and planning with businesses, property owners and construction. Communication with property and business owners started at least a year in advance. Early on planners decided to call it the “Progress Zone,” much more positive than a construction or work zone.

Weekly meetings were held the first year on every Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., which is the time business owners picked to meet with the foreman of the construction team, the city engineer and mayor. A bi-weekly newsletter helped with updates, as did the numerous Facebook videos to keep the public informed on work in the Progress Zone. “Ali” the alley cat encouraged customers to use rear entrances and parking areas in the backs of Main Street businesses.  

Unsolicited social media posts highlighted how pleased people were of the work going on downtown and how proud they are of the Ottumwa downtown district. It tied the last several years of work together, looking better than anyone imagined or dreamed possible.

Historic Valley Junction, city of West Des Moines, with a population of 56,609, completed $1.6M (part of the city’s capital improvement budget) in streetscape improvements in 2020. The project scope included three blocks of Valley Junction’s main street, 5th Street. Work included new IT conduit, replacement of a band of brick pavers along the sidewalk (approximately 2.5 feet-wide) with a concrete base under them, new streetlights, replacement of street trees and new fence surrounds, and similar work in each of the four walkways that connect Historic Valley Junction Foundation’s main street to parking lots behind buildings.

The project was badly needed because the tops of the previous pavers were starting to cleave off due to frost-freeze, making them unsightly and creating a tripping hazard that was a significant problem.

The City of West Des Moines had a contract with engineering firm, HR Green who oversaw the work, while Valley Junction’s role was mainly to channel merchant feedback to HR Green’s staff and support them. Using weekly email updates, remaining calm and respecting the chain of command helped Valley Junction survive.

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