As a newly repaved Main Street opens, downtown businesses are eager to reap the rewardsDec 29, 2020 04:34PM ● By Tricia Hoadley
Newark business owners are breathing a sigh of relief as traffic once again flows freely on Main Street and customers are venturing back to shop and dine.
Since May of 2019, construction crews have kept alternating lanes and sections of Main Street diverted to replace street and sidewalk asphalt and pavement, install drainage improvements, upgrade traffic signals, add curb extensions and create bump-out paved areas that will have benches to make Main Street more inviting to pedestrians. The whole corridor is now in compliance with current Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. Enhanced parking lot and driveway entrances have also been added along Main Street.
The reconstruction project has, of course, run hard into the global coronavirus pandemic, which shut down businesses in an unprecedented way and has resulted in the closure of several. Restaurants and retail stores have been adapting to the pandemic restrictions as traffic gradually increases on Main Street.
The project wrapped up in mid-June, slightly earlier than its initial Summer 2020 estimate. That was in part because of the drop-off in traffic that allowed crews to work in a more targeted way. Residents and business owners are getting their first look at the way Main Street will look from now on.
For Newark City Manager Tom Coleman, the project is the fulfillment of a longtime goal.
“Main Street was last paved in the mid-2000s and it quickly began deteriorating due to the old, concrete roadway that was under the new asphalt,” Coleman said in a June interview. “By 2016, it was clear that a full reconstruction of the roadway was going to need to happen soon. Parallel to this, the Downtown Newark Partnership, together with the Planning and Development Department, Public Works, and City Manager’s office, began discussing ways to improve the pedestrian experience on Main Street.
“The DNP Design Committee prepared some initial sketch plans that showed ideas for curb extensions, now referred to as bump-outs, filled with features like benches, bike racks, trees, and additional landscaping. This design also provided additional protections for pedestrians using the major crosswalks on Main Street and called for the addition of a new crosswalk at the Haines Street intersection. Bike Newark found out about the plans and threw their support behind the project. Once we had a coalition of support, we took the idea to City Council as a Transportation Alternatives Project (TAP) that would have been a stand-alone project, separate from the road reconstruction that was already being discussed at DelDOT. Council approved the TAP application and from there it went to WILMAPCO and eventually on to DelDOT.
“In addition to repaving and our pedestrian improvements, DelDOT decided now was the time to remove the underlaying concrete layer that was the cause of the rapid failure of the roadway,” Coleman continued. “They also made improvements to the storm sewer system to help alleviate the dramatic flash flooding we have seen recently with high-intensity thunderstorms, especially near Haines Street. We have been working with DelDOT and their design firm, AECOM, on the project since 2017.”
The disruption of Main Street traffic was a clear challenge, and Coleman said, “The initial reaction from merchants was mixed. Most seemed to understand the need, but were upset about how long the project would take to complete. Many wanted the work to be done only over the summer, but DelDOT determined that would take six or seven years and dramatically increase the price of the project. Working at night so the lanes could be reopened during the day also was not an option due to the need to remove the concrete under the asphalt and all the utility work that needed to be completed. ... In the end, A-Del Construction was selected, with a schedule that would have them finished up before the fall semester later this year. I don’t think everyone was happy with the final decision, but in the end, I think DelDOT was very responsive to the needs of the business community.”
The project was expected to cost $11.8 million, and Coleman said when everything is finished, it will come in at or below budget. “DelDOT’s original schedule estimated that the project would take approximately 610 days from start to finish,” he said. “As part of the cost-plus bidding program, A-Del’s submitted schedule was very aggressive and drove the schedule all the way down to 431 calendar days. A-Del has done a good job of finishing nearly right on schedule, despite several issues arising during construction that weren’t accounted for and would have extended the project if not for the opportunity to accelerate construction due to the pandemic.
“While the pandemic couldn’t have been anticipated back when the project started, it is great that the project is ending within days of when businesses are able to reopen,” Coleman said.
He remains confident that the changes on Main Street will be seen as positive.
“DelDOT included larger tree pits in several locations which will allow us to plant larger trees to more quickly restore the tree canopy that has been missing for years,” he said. “We will also have safer crosswalks, more bike racks, and benches for people to sit on and rest or eat food purchased from our many restaurants. DART, UniCity, and UD busses will now be able to drop riders off directly onto the ADA-compliant sidewalk or landing, as opposed to into the parking aisle. We will have designated handicap-accessible parking spaces with wheelchair-accessible curb ramps for each space.
“Also, the city took this opportunity to switch our parking metering system from single-space meters to multi-space meters. This change cleaned up the streetscape considerably and allows for pay-by-app functionality using your smartphone through the Passport Parking App. The extra crosswalk at Haines Street is going to be a great addition as well. This was a location where we frequently saw people running through traffic since the nearest crosswalk wasn’t very close.”
The new design will have some benefits as restaurants reopen with reduced indoor seating capacity, Coleman said.
“We actually have one restaurant that is proposing to expand their outdoor seating into two of the new bump-outs through the Governor’s temporary program for restaurants, so they are serving a practical purpose as well,” he said.
In the Newark Shopping Center, which has had its own prolonged renovation project that began well before the Main Street repaving, the Churrascaria Saudades Brazilian Steakhouse shared the burden of having potential patrons deal with the traffic interruptions.
Owner Philip A. Piraino said, “The impact on our business was huge. No one likes to sit in traffic. The traffic impeded access to our restaurant, and our numbers, year over year, took a hit on account of the construction.”
Piraino feels that the changes to the streetscape may not all be beneficial, either. “The end results are not really impressive. At the beginning of Main Street, just prior to reaching the Newark Shopping Center, there are several locations where the curb juts out into the street for a bit and then returns to a more normal location,” he said. “There may be some rhyme or reason for this construction, but it reduces parking, impedes traffic flow to the turning lanes, and seems to be not very well thought out.”
While the restaurant makes changes in seating to accommodate Covid-19 restrictions, “We have heard from regular patrons that they are anxious to visit us again, as soon as construction is completed,” Piraino said.
Sasha Aber is the owner of Home Grown Café, which sits pretty much in the center of the project. She said business owners were kept informed of each step of the process, and while there have been complaints about the disruptions, she pointed out that before the project began, “the infrastructure under the paved road was failing every 10 feet, and something had to be done about it. I first heard about this project way before it started. At the time, an 18-month to two-year project seemed awful, and all businesses knew it would impact them.”
That being said, she added, “what was worse than the construction was the public's perceived notion of how awful it would be. I think that the locals that stayed away because of what they feared actually opened up Main Street more, and freed up parking spaces. When intersections were being worked on, the impact could be felt, and there were some merging issues from time to time, too.
“This wasn't a walk in the park,” she said. “But Home Grown was lucky. Our front entrance wasn't impacted, any water lines that were hit were fixed quickly, and we have a very loyal following. I know not everyone fared as well.”
With everything being completed by the end of June, “Main Street is going to be a smooth, beautiful road,” Aber said. “I wish utility lines had been buried, but there didn’t seem to be funds to do that. The absence of construction vehicles and crews will be welcome, and it will be like a fresh breath of air for Main Street businesses.
“We are all thrilled that this project will be coming to an end, and that it was able to finish at a faster pace than originally scheduled. I think we are all looking forward to looking out our front windows and seeing our town back. The timing is perfect for the limited deck seating that we will be allowed. We are in for a long road of recovery ahead, but at least it will be one that is – physically -- well paved.”
To contact correspondent John Chambless, email [email protected].
Photos by John