MANKATO — Engineers have been authorized to draft final designs of a new Riverfront Drive through Old Town, and city staff were instructed to begin discussions with affected properties on the timing and detour options related to the mammoth 2024 project.
After on-and-off discussions going back nearly a decade, the City Council’s unanimous vote Monday night made it official — Riverfront Drive is headed for a diet in the historic business district. Construction is to start in March of 2024, and various segments of the busy roadway will be intermittently closed over the ensuing six months.
When the $8.6 million makeover is completed in 17 months, two of the current four lanes dedicated to through traffic will be gone, replaced with wider walkways, landscaping, sidewalk dining and other amenities in Old Town, along with a new center lane dedicated to left-turners.
Mankatoans have gotten a taste in the past 12 months of what’s to come, but the final product will be different than the ongoing preview that began at the beginning of June.
“We removed the bumpouts that were part of the demonstration project and the center median (at Spring Street),” City Manager Susan Arntz said.
And all that paint included in the pilot project — the blue polka dots and artsy flowing lines — will be gone. That was never intended to be part of the final project. Instead, it was installed to give people a sense of where the road would narrow, the new location of eastside on-street parking and how much additional space would be created for pedestrians.
Council members, though, were frustrated that some members of the public were convinced that the gaudy paint was a central element of the permanent changes being contemplated.
“They can’t get it out of their mind, the way it looks now,” Council member Kevin Mettler said during a discussion of the project at a work session earlier this month. “… They’re just stuck.”
City officials promised that designs of the actual appearance of the Old Town segment would be forthcoming. And city engineers assured the council that the merging areas — where four lanes of through traffic are reduced to two — would work much more smoothly and seamlessly when the narrowing is done with concrete curbs rather than paint and plastic lane delineators.
The decision to drop center median at Spring Street and the curb bumpouts leaves a glimmer of hope for drivers who hate the new design. Without those obstructions, restriping of pavement paint could convert Riverfront back to a four-lane roadway if traffic levels rise in the future and more lanes are needed, although that would require the elimination of on-street parking.
“It wouldn’t be a massive investment if we need to go back to a four-lane,” Council member Jessica Hatanpa said at the work session.
There’s now only one prominent design element to be decided — Council member Dennis Dieken’s request for right turn lanes on the eastern side of Riverfront. The lanes would likely help with traffic flow but at a cost of seven on-street parking stalls at the north end of each block, according to a memo to the council.
“I don’t see how businesses can afford seven parking spaces being taken away,” Mayor Najwa Massad said Monday night.
Although the Old Town area has been the focus of much of the debate — and thousands of online comments from those in favor and opposed to the road diet — the Riverfront Drive reconstruction project is actually bigger than that business district. It will begin at Main Street and will continue past Madison Avenue to Lafayette Street, bringing new pavement and utilities throughout. There will also be new traffic signals at Rock Street, joining those at Main, Plum and Elm streets and at Madison Avenue. An overhead pedestrian-activated flashing beacon is planned for the Spring Street crosswalk.
The project is to be funded with $2.8 million in federal funding, $2.3 million in utility funds, $2.2 million from the city’s allocation of state gas tax proceeds, $1 million in special assessments against adjacent property owners and $300,000 in general obligation bonds.
City officials hope to put the project out for bids before Christmas with a contractor chosen by Jan. 22. The start of construction is optimistically slated for March 15. Different segments will be done at different times throughout the construction season to ensure that access — either from the north or the south — is continuously maintained to industrial businesses on the west side of Riverfront.
The goal for final completion is Oct. 15, 2024.