Surviving the Main Street projectApr 25, 2019 03:13PM ● By J. Chambless
When work is finished, Main Street will have a whole new look. But it's going to take some time.
By Kelley Bielewicz
“We’re still here!”
Sasha Aber, owner of Home Grown Café on Main Street, wants residents, visitors, UD employees and students to know that despite construction, downtown Newark is very much still in business. “We’re open,” she said. “We’re ready for you.”
After years of patching potholes every spring, the State of Delaware is giving Newark’s Main Street a major overhaul. By early summer 2020, the road will fully reopen and will sport new pavement, increased on-street parking -- including handicapped-accessible spots -- and several curb extensions for pedestrians’ safety and enjoyment.
In the meanwhile, visitors will see lane closures and parking restrictions over the next year or so, in segments progressing from Library Avenue to just past the Trabant Garage exit. Yet, despite the proliferation of orange cones and heavy machinery, there are still plenty of ways to get downtown.
“You don’t have to even go on Main Street,” Aber said, pointing out that many lots can be accessed from Cleveland Avenue, such as the one behind Home Grown that opens onto Center Street.
Rich Hanel, owner of You've Been Framed, a 40-year-old business providing custom picture framing, recommends avoiding the construction zone where possible. “My suggestion to the wonderful people who will continue to support the Main Street businesses during construction by shopping or eating downtown is to stay aware of where construction is currently taking place and taking advantage of side and parallel streets to get closer to your destination,” he said. For example, You’ve Been Framed customers can use Pomeroy Lane as a shortcut from Delaware Avenue.
“I encourage everyone to be a little adventurous and creative in navigating around the worst parts and use an app, like Waze, that chooses alternative routes for you during congestion,” Hanel added.
The 15-month-long project will replace the underlying concrete that supports the surface asphalt. It will also bring crosswalk ramps up to code, improve drainage, and upgrade signals and signage.
The City of Newark is simultaneously performing preventative maintenance on water mains.
Despite being more than 130 years old, Newark’s water system is in “generally really good shape,” according to Ethan Robinson, deputy director of Newark’s Public Works Department. Because the rehabilitation project presented the opportunity to combine related construction work into a single timeframe, the city’s contractor will spend this spring and summer upgrading leads and assemblies for 15 fire hydrants. The contractor will also install inline valves in order to better isolate sections of the water mains as the need arises in the future, due to either problems or new development.
Such work will create “minor traffic impacts” (i.e., lane shifts) and encroach slightly onto sidewalks in the immediate work zones, Robinson said. Most replacement work will be done after hours and at night to minimize disruption to traffic and to water service. Excavation will be done by day due to noise.
There will be boil-water advisories for each phase of the work as a precautionary measure. FAQs on advisories can be found on the City’s website at https://newarkde.gov/BoilWaterFAQ.
Jimmy Meyers, franchise owner of Jimmy John’s, shares the business community’s general acceptance of this project’s inevitability. “This needs to happen,” he said. His establishment relies heavily on student foot traffic, especially between classes. Sidewalks should only be affected sparingly, where curb ramps and fire hydrants are being replaced.
Jimmy John’s is known for making deliveries via bicycle, which could become challenging as traffic lanes are closed off. But food delivery also provides a way for customers to patronize downtown eateries without going downtown. Most local restaurants either provide their own delivery or participate in Eat Street, Grub Hub, Door Dash and other services.
“If you want it delivered, absolutely. But if you want to come in, it’s still gonna be easy-peasy,” said Jeanne Kress, owner of The Perfect Blend, which serves waffles and coffee in an historic house whose interior feels like a cozy living room.
“We are the easiest place to get to on Main Street,” she said. “I expect people will come in here because we have a back entrance [off Delaware Avenue]. You can also cut through Newark Shopping Center. So the impact of construction on us shouldn’t make any difference to our customers.”
Mike Beulah, project manager for DelDOT, says that the contract includes flaggers on Main Street to assist with traffic flow during rush hours.
Aber acknowledges that there will be a little more traffic backup, but people shouldn’t avoid downtown because of “five extra minutes.” She pointed out that only one lane will be closed at a time and the city is creating extra parking elsewhere.
The perpetual challenge of parking downtown will be exacerbated during construction, but it won’t be impossible. Off-street lots, such as The Perfect Blend’s, remain unaffected. Hanel, too, offers free parking for You’ve Been Framed customers and has been assured by DelDOT that parking entrances will remain clear during the entire repaving project.
DelDOT has created a website, www.mainstreetimprovements.com, to keep the public up to date on construction plans and progress. It includes information about both City and UD paid parking options, as well as customer parking lots.
Marc Ashby, co-owner of the Deer Park Tavern, isn’t concerned about parking. His restaurant has 55 parking spots. He is concerned about public perception, though. “People might stay away from downtown for two years,” he said.
Like many downtown businesses, the Deer Park’s revenue historically rises 30 percent during the spring months encompassing UD Commencement and Alumni Weekend. The section of Main Street closest to the Deer Park is slated for construction during May and June of 2020.
May is the busiest month for both restaurants and retail, attracting families and alumni in town for UD events, as well as students and locals with spring fever. The redesigned downtown will include features meant to further increase walkability, such as bicycle storage and “parklets.” These expanded sections of the sidewalk will provide room for benches and greenery and will encourage pedestrians to linger outdoors. Some will coincide with bump-outs at crosswalks -- which will improve visibility and shorten crossing time -- as well as bus stops.
One recurring question from residents and business owners alike is, “Why don’t they bury the power lines?” while the road is dug up. Unfortunately, the hated rat’s nest isn’t going away.
Public Works deputy director Robinson said that, as much as everyone would like to see the overhead wires disappear, the costs would be “astronomical.” Digging is only one part of such a project, he explained. Conduits need to be laid, conductors pulled through them, each service connection recreated and transformers relocated to ground level. City officials couldn’t justify the expenditure -- and additional service disruptions -- at this time.
Bus service downtown should remain mostly on schedule throughout the project. “The intent is to maintain bus stops,” said Natalie Barnhart, liaison between city businesses and DelDOT, although she noted the possibility that some stops may need to be temporarily relocated. She said that DART and UD may decide independently to alter schedules or routes.
Sasha Aber believes that students and professors will continue to walk downtown, but residents might decide to avoid it. “Sometimes, perception is worse than reality,” she said.
To help combat that perception, The Newark Partnership (TNP) -- successor to the former Downtown Newark Partnership -- is planning an Academy Dinner Series to bring visitors downtown and support local charities. Aber, a member of TNP’s Events Committee, says the three evenings will each feature six high-end local chefs serving five-course meals under a tent with live music. The first one will benefit SL24 UnLocke the Light Foundation, which raises awareness about mental health and suicide prevention.
The dinners will take place on June 27, July 25 and August 22 from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Academy Street, with free parking available in UD’s Lot No. 53.
She encourages people to come out and support Newark stores and restaurants. “This is our town,” she said. “Be a part of downtown!”