Wrought iron for Blacksburg street makeover
Blacksburg street to get makeover
When the dust clears in 2013, College Avenue will be a pedestrian-friendly promenade.
By Mike Gangloff
An array of planners, committees and study groups have spent more than a decade looking at how to refashion the border between downtown and Virginia Tech’s campus into a more pedestrian-friendly, festival-friendly, sidewalk-dining-friendly space. A sweeping transformation is envisioned.
“This project is trying to be much more than a streetscape project,” Blacksburg engineering director Adele Schirmer said recently. “We’re trying to cross the barrier to become a pedestrian mall that sometimes carries traffic.”
The plan is that when the dust clears sometime in 2013, College Avenue will be very different — a one-way street bordered with wide sidewalks, decorative planters and benches, and a stage that can be configured toward either the street or Tech’s sloping Henderson Lawn. Laid out in a patchwork of colored concrete, the street will have sockets so that wrought-iron posts can be quickly emplaced to close it to vehicles and convert the entire area — or just sections, depending on the size of the event — into a pedestrian-only plaza — the College Avenue Promenade, as the project has been known in planning documents since at least 2001.
The town has budgeted $2 million of its state funding and a matching $2 million of local money for the work, said Blacksburg Assistant Town Manager Steve Ross. The exact cost of the project won’t be known until the bidding process is finished in upcoming weeks.
“It’s really going to benefit my business, and it’s going to benefit all the businesses downtown,” said Mike Buchanan, owner of Souvlaki, a Mediterranean eatery that is celebrating 30 years on or near College Avenue.
Just up the block, Ranae Gillie of Gillie’s restaurant, a College Avenue fixture since 1974, echoed Buchanan’s sentiments.
“I have been through many renovations of College Avenue,” Gillie said. “But if they follow through with the plans I’ve seen, I think it will enhance College Avenue — I think it will enhance downtown.”
The project will succeed if it attracts more people downtown, Gillie continued. “What I’ve seen looks beautiful,” she said.
Both Gillie and Buchanan anticipate that the expanded sidewalks, planned to be about 28 feet wide on the business side of the street, will let them add outside dining. Gillie’s already has a few outdoor tables. While the town has not offered all the details, the sidewalk expansion probably will let the restaurant add five or six more, Gillie said.
Buchanan agreed, saying he would like to expand Souvlaki, which presently has tables inside only, into the outdoors if the town does not impose too high a fee for outside space.
Of course, to get to the broad sidewalks and other amenities of the new street, businesses and their customers will have to endure a year of construction. There, too, planning has been extensive. To reduce the effects on businesses somewhat, construction on College Avenue’s two blocks will begin at the Otey Street end, in front of Tech’s Squires Student Center.
The plan is that the area immediately in front of businesses will not be torn up until after the downtownwide Steppin’ Out festival in August and the fall football season, events that businesses depend on to bring crowds of customers.
The project is to be completed in time for the town’s Steppin’ Out festival in 2013, Schirmer said.
At least one lane of traffic should be maintained on College Avenue throughout the project, Schirmer said, and pedestrian pathways will be kept open in front of businesses.
When the project is done, College Avenue will carry traffic only from Main Street toward Otey Street. Drivers will have to use other routes to head toward Main Street.
The project also will eliminate parking along College Avenue, meaning about two dozen spaces will disappear. Twelve of these will reappear as new metered spaces in Tech’s parking lot for its Graduate Life Center at Donaldson Brown. This lot is located along College Avenue near Otey Street.
Other aspects of the finished project include replacing the wrought-iron fence along the bottom of Henderson Lawn with a low, Hokie stone wall designed for passers-by to sit on, and paired trash and recycling containers along the street. The new street will not have curbs, relying on posts and planters to separate vehicle traffic from pedestrians. Storm water will be carried away in runnels, shallow channels that are less abrupt a pedestrian obstacle than a curb, Schirmer said.
Schirmer said the long planning effort tried to take the concerns and ideas of residents and business owners into account.
Gillie and Buchanan said that while they weren’t familiar with every aspect of the project, they felt they had been more or less kept in the loop.
“I am not looking forward to the construction,” Gillie said. But she added, “I really think they’re trying to be fair with us.”