Madison’s reconstruction of a busy street on the eclectic near east side is striking fear in the business community and turning environmentalists against each other.
The $9 million project will rebuild more than a mile of Williamson Street — or Willy Street, as it is called — that runs east from the city’s downtown through several thriving neighborhoods. The original plan, established about two years ago, called for a scaled-down resurfacing.
But city planners decided it would be better to reconstruct Williamson so the street wouldn’t need more work for 20 to 40 years.
Businesses, though, fear the construction work will keep customers away in an already troubled economy. Bicyclists are upset the street will be narrowed. A neighborhood association wants more time to find more environmental solutions for utilities and other elements along the corridor.
“We were dropped into a fast and furious pace,” said Anne Walker, a board member for the Marquette Neighborhood Association. “It’s been a scramble, and I strongly feel more time is required.”
But Alderwoman Marsha Rummel, whose district includes the project, says enough is enough. Rummel said she’s sympathetic to everyone with an interest in the project, but it’s time to rebuild the street.
“I carefully considered it,” she said, adding the project could have happened sooner.
The reconstruction is scheduled to start in March and last until fall. Nearly every element of the project has been contentious, even pitting people with environmental interests against one another, said Alderman Larry Palm, who also serves on the city’s Board of Public Works.
“Some people wanted wider streets for bike lanes. Some people wanted narrower streets so they can have larger terraces so they can put bigger trees there,” Palm said. “It’s fascinating because they don’t work together.”
A six-block stretch of Williamson between Blount and Baldwin streets is slated to be narrowed from 48 feet to 44. That leaves little room for Madison’s plethora of bicyclists to share the street with motorists, said Amanda White, associate director of the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin.
“People in vehicles are not required to use less convenient routes to access Williamson Street,” she said. “People on bicycles should not have to either.”
To deal with the environmental concerns, the city pledged to save as many trees as possible, install catch basins to remove solids from storm-water runoff and test new technology for storm-water treatment. The project also will replace traffic signals, install colored crosswalks, and recycle all asphalt and concrete that is removed.
The project has an unprecedented scope for street work in Madison, Rummel said.
Still, Joanne Schilling, a Marquette member, said more time would let the city implement greater environmental measures and give businesses a chance to recover.
“Many businesses are struggling already in the tough economy, and with construction starting in 10 weeks,” it would only get worse, Schilling said.
But Steve Shepherd, co-owner of a hardware store, Ace on Willy Street, said there’s no such thing as a good time for such a massive street overhaul.
“We’re ready for it one way or the other,” he said. “It was scheduled to be done last year, and they delayed it already because of economic conditions. If you’re looking at the business aspect of it, I don’t think waiting a year for us would make much difference.”
Even though no one is completely happy with the project, Alderman Brian Solomon said, the breadth of it is a remarkable accomplishment with so many competing interests at work.
“I think this is about as close to perfection,” he said, “as we’ve ever been able to achieve on a project.”
Rummel said she would continue to search for money to push utilities underground for the first two blocks of Williamson Street, but that it would be too expensive to do that for the entire corridor, as neighbors have requested.
“When I weighed it all with how that street will look when it’s done, I think it will be an iconic street,” Rummel said. “We can work on street amenities, keep working with our business district and continue on.”