CEDAR FALLS — Now that the reconstruction of University Avenue is virtually complete in Cedar Falls, many are taking a look back at the $38.8 million project.
And it looks pretty good.
“It is so much better than I even thought it would be,” said Jon Davis, who moved his Slumberland Furniture operation into the old Hy-Vee building near the roundabout at University Avenue and Boulder Drive in Cedar Falls. “We’re just thrilled with the store traffic that we’ve seen. When I think about the old store in 2014 and 2015, the traffic in this building is double — sometimes three times that traffic. It’s convenient for customers, and I hear nothing but great feedback from them.”
Davis had moved his operation from its Waterloo location at 4020 University Ave.
“We were experiencing declining traffic, and the road continued to deteriorate,” he said.
Once Cedar Falls approved the University Avenue project, he put the wheels in motion.
“We actually made the purchase about a year and a half after that first call,” he said. “It was a long process, and it all just worked out perfectly.”
While some minor work will be finished up in the spring, the University Avenue project was substantially completed late last year.
The City Council voted 6-1 in February 2015 to narrow the road from six lanes to four and replace six of its eight signalized intersections with roundabouts.
It was a sometimes-contentious process, with most of the conflict coming over the use of roundabouts. Access to businesses, while never completely cut off, suffered when traffic sometimes had to be taken down to one lane.
But today’s smooth drive has apparently smoothed over a lot of concerns residents voiced before and through the process.
Cedar Falls Mayor Jim Brown said comments from citizens lately have been overwhelmingly positive.
“I’ve been saying publicly, probably nine out of 10,” Brown said. “Of course there was a very large group that had been supportive since the beginning.”
In other instances, he says, there have been “converts.”
“A lot of people who weren’t sure about the project, once they made some trips through the finished corridor a couple of times, they came on board,” Brown said. “They’ve been able to see how it flows, the access in and out of business areas. They appreciate what the city has done there.”
Of course, Brown realizes there were some painful points during the process. He mentioned a short duration where access to the Hy-Vee grocery store was difficult for motorists.
Completed over three years and three phases, the project was the most significant overhaul of University, once part of U.S. Highway 218, since the road was created and opened in the early 1970s as a six-lane road with a series of signalized intersections. The state turned over jurisdiction of the road, along with $20 million, to bring the road back to an acceptable condition.
“The first phase was probably the hardest, because of the sensitivity to the types of changes,” said Stephanie Houk Sheetz, the city’s director of community development. “There are trails, sidewalks, bus pullouts and a lot of elements people weren’t used to seeing on University Avenue.”
Another business owner, Brad Jacobson, operates his insurance agency from his office at 4919 University Ave. He came away impressed with the ability to keep access open to businesses over the entire construction process, even if it was messy at times.
“The challenges we incurred were expected,” Jacobson said. “We knew the road needed to be replaced. We anticipated the challenges we had to face.
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“I’m thrilled with how the road turned out; I think it’s beautiful,” he added. “The road was in extremely poor condition. It was like driving down a washboard. The road was way overdue to be replaced; it was almost an embarrassment.”
He’s already seeing bicycle and footprints on the trail in front of his office, indicating he’s apt to see a lot of that traffic during warmer weather. Prior to the construction, there was no pedestrian access on University.
“We would see people walking and riding bikes in the lanes of traffic,” Jacobson said. “I was always afraid someone was going to get hurt. That access is one of the huge pluses of the new design.”
Brown listed a number of new businesses in the corridor and noted the city has plans to give specific credit to the appearance and traffic flow on University as the city works to attract more new business.
“It’s amazing what has happened over the past three years,” he said. “We should have some pretty good news on new projects this year.”
Brown said one of the biggest challenges was getting information to businesses, property owners and other citizens around University before and during the project.
City officials held open-house-type informative meetings throughout the process, complete with maps. Information was disseminated on the city’s broadcast channel and website. Officials even went door to door a couple of times.
“We heard the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said.
City officials and City Council members invested a lot of time in investigating the safety aspects of using roundabouts.
“We are finding the report about increased safety to be proving true,” Sheetz said. “Some people may have misinterpreted that no accidents would happen. We can’t guarantee that anywhere. But the severity of the accidents, injuries and the costs for damage is less because there are less ‘T-bones,’ which happen when people are running lights or not paying attention. The severity has gone down.”
And whether the city used roundabouts or not, it had long been clear that the road needed to be replaced.
“The pavement was over 60 years old and had been overlaid once or twice,” said Sheetz. “There’s only so much maintenance you can put into that.”
Brown’s first meeting as mayor was the meeting in which final approval was given to the project. So while he missed out on some of the initial discussions and arguments, he has been there throughout the entire construction process. And he’s pleased with what he sees.
“For me, personally, if I’m out early in the morning when it’s empty, it’s just a gorgeous corridor,” Brown said. “And the market is reacting accordingly.
Sheetz also is happy with the corridor’s aesthetics.
“As the landscaping matures, it’s only going to get better,” she said.
Since opening the Slumberland Furniture in the old Hy-Vee building, Davis has seen two more tenants come on board.
One is Just Dough, run by Natalie Brown, a local entrepreneur who also runs Scratch Cupcakes. The other new tenant is Trinkets & Togs Thrift Store, a nonprofit store that focuses on housing items, clothing, etc.
“It’s fun to be here,” Davis said. “In the spring and summer there are lots of walkers and bicyclists. The building just jumps out at you from the University and Boulder roundabout.”