WATERLOO — The U.S. Highway 63 project goes well beyond repairing a road.
Local leaders view the undertaking as a way to spark new business development and rebuild depressed residential areas from downtown through the city’s north end.
“The Highway 63 project is part of a new chapter in development for the community spanning from city limit to city limit and from neighborhood to neighborhood,” said Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart.
The Iowa Department of Transportation has already rebuilt U.S. 63 from Newell Street north to Donald Street. Contractors are set to return this spring to resume replacing the highway from Newell Street south to U.S. Highway 218 downtown.
While the DOT’s focus is to fix the crumbling pavement, city officials are partnering to ensure the project reverses the negative impact of carving a major highway through once-thriving neighborhoods and provides amenities to promote new investment.
Signs of success are already evident at both ends of the project, with Logan Plaza being redeveloped and UnityPoint Health investing at the north end and a downtown anchor with Grand Crossing, the Cedar Valley TechWorks and a planned Hawkeye Community College adult learning center.
“I believe that highway project was the tipping point for getting this thing done,” said Ben Stroh, who’s redeveloping Logan Plaza as North Crossing.
Hawkeye Community College President Linda Allen said the highway work was a factor in the college’s decision to locate its adult learning center on the former Waterloo Bowl-in site. The $12 million, 45,000-square-foot building will be on Jefferson Street between West First Street and Mullan Avenue, which are the northbound and southbound lanes of U.S. 63.
“Someone said we would be, in a sense, the southern jewel in the crown of the Highway 63 project,” Allen said. “It wasn’t our words, but we really like that.”
HCC is “already in the neighborhood” with a 3D design lab at the Cedar Valley TechWorks, and sees synergies with nearby amenities like the Cedar Valley SportsPlex and developer Brent Dahlstrom’s Grand Crossing, which will include new rental housing units and retail stores.
The adult learning center will provide a variety of educational programming, including a nursing program, CNC training, English language learning, childcare and a clinic as well as a third-floor event center and art gallery.
“It’s such a unique facility,” Allen said. “Not only will it be a wonderful asset to that amazing part of Waterloo, but it will also be an asset to the community for the next 50 years or more.”
Community Planning and Development Director Noel Anderson said he’s also excited about the opportunities for neighborhood development between the North Crossing and downtown hubs.
When the highway was originally built, engineers did not consider “environmental justice” and developed a road literally abutting front porches and lacking safe pedestrian crossings.
The first phase of the reconstruction removed 26 homes and two businesses and added recreational trails, tree plantings, neighborhood markers, crossings and other features “to truly make this a new front door to Waterloo from the north,” Anderson said.
“We were able to create a livable neighborhood for the homes that remained while creating some good positive green space and corridor aesthetics for the roadway,” he added.
The city and DOT have a $33 million cost-sharing agreement in place to finish the project, and bids were opened in December on the first portion of that work.
While no homes or businesses are expected to be removed during the next phase of construction, the city has included trails, decorative features and amenities. Storm and sanitary sewer work also is planned to help alleviate flooding issues that have plagued the downtown portion of U.S. 63.
Another key change will replace the flood-prone Canadian National Railway underpass on U.S. 63 between Dane and Newell streets with an overpass. The railroad tracks and an existing pedestrian highway crossing would become “tunnels” through the new mechanically stabilized earthen walls of the overpass.
Work on the project is expected to occur during the 2017 and 2018 construction seasons.