Makeover underway in the ‘Center of the Universe’
A worker supervises removal of a stretch of sidewalk in front of Ashland Coffee and Tea in downtown Ashland as a freight train passes through town.
Sounds of jackhammers and work trucks are signifying the start of an extensive makeover in the “Center of the Universe.”
Work began last week in downtown Ashland on a streetscape project that will enhance public safety and accessibility to downtown businesses while also addressing infrastructure problems in the heart of town.
Crews began work onsite the day after Labor Day, slightly behind the town’s original timetable to begin work in August. According to Charles Hartgrove, town manager, complications in the College Park neighborhood, where the town’s contractor Talley and Armstrong recently concluded work, delayed the start downtown.
During the first phase of the project, crews will be stationed on the block north of Thompson Street west of the train tracks stretching from Ashland Coffee and Tea to the Henry Clay Inn. Though the project has been delayed slightly, Hartgrove said he still believes work on the first phase will conclude before the holiday season.
“Our goal is, on this first section north of [Route] 54, to be done in plenty of time before the holiday season because we don’t want to inconvenience our downtown businesses as they’re trying to get people into their businesses before Christmas,” Hartgrove said.
Weather could still be a delaying factor moving forward. The town also built extra time into the current schedule to allow for any “surprises,” such as unmapped, underground utilities, that may emerge as crews begin excavation work.
“I think we’ve tried to plan in some flexibility for the contractor and I don’t think we’ll have too many problems,” Hartgrove said. “That being said, I think we’re always trying to be cautious and move forward as quickly as we can and also do the job right.”
Crews began by ripping up the existing sidewalk, which will be replaced by a combination of brick and concrete. Workers will also address drainage issues by increasing the size of outfall lines and tying those to an existing stormwater line. They will also reconcile any existing utility conflicts underground.
Following underground work, the streets will be repaved with a combination of asphalt and paving blocks that help collect and direct stormwater runoff, a feature used in the town’s municipal parking lot and in the recent College Park improvements.
Similar construction will ensue on the block south of Route 54, when the second phase of construction begins in 2014, a phase that comes with its own difficulties. Many of the businesses north of Route 54 have separate entrances not impacted by the construction. The same can’t be said for the block across the street.
“The bigger challenge will be in the spring, working with the restaurants and retail businesses on the south side because they don’t have rear access,” Hartgrove said, adding that the town will work with businesses to control “construction chaos.”
The main push behind the project is ensuring there are safe, walkable and handicapped-accessible sidewalks downtown while improving stormwater drainage and reducing the risk of associated property damage. Hartgrove said an added benefit is showing the private sector that the town wants them to succeed.
“Showing the town’s investment in downtown we’re hoping will continue to fuel the private sector’s want to invest in our community, not only new investors, but our existing businesses – we want them to feel like we’re a partner with them, in bringing people to their door and helping them be successful, rather than a hindrance,” Hartgrove said. “So we feel like this is a great way to do that and give downtown a nice aesthetic.”
Doing so will cost $600,000 for phases one and two. Funds were derived from capital projects funds for sidewalk improvements and paving. The town estimates approximately 75 percent of the project will qualify for funding Ashland receives from the state for road upkeep; the town gets about $1.4 million annually to maintain its roads.
The project had been a town priority for several years. The biggest challenge in making it a reality was the issue of joint property ownership between private and public entities.
According to Hartgrove, an invisible line ran down the sidewalk: on one side was the town’s right of way and on the other was private property. To make the project work, the town had to enter into legal agreements with the property owners, giving the town a permanent maintenance easement, which allows for construction of the project, and lets the town easily maintain the right of way, sidewalks, and other public amenities in the future.
“I think that’s been the biggest challenge in keeping this going forward,” Hartgrove said. “But the property owners and business managers downtown have been very good partners and very open-minded.”
Hartgrove said the town will continue to use social media and other advertising means to notify the public that the businesses are open and accessible and there is available off-site parking. He urges citizens to check the town’s website and social media for project updates and to be mindful when walking through the downtown district.