While Corvallis has the classic college-town vibe down pat, a few clicks down the road big changes have been taking place in Albany over the past year. Albany is at the tail end of a much anticipated, multi-million dollar and multi-phased streetscape renovation that was planned for quite some time. The project is a huge facelift for a downtown that has seen a recent uptick in new businesses, from bakeries to breweries.
Although the project has put some local business owners in a pickle during construction, work crews are completing the final touches and expect to be mostly done by the end of March. Major improvements on the second phase of the streetscape include new sidewalks, re-laying asphalt pavement, replacing street trees, updating water lines, adding stormwater planter wells, and improving street lighting.
Despite complaints from business owners and prolonged disruptions to patrons, commuters, and residents alike, the streetscape improvements were planned with good intentions: to improve the pedestrian experience and to welcome people driving into downtown. Despite the good will and tall task for city officials and construction crews coordinating the infrastructure upgrade, questions about the streetscape project to local business owners has led to some heavy eye rolls.
The first phase of the streetscape project, carried out in the first quarter of 2017 was carefully timed to accommodate the opening of the Carousel. The scope of work included street and sidewalk improvements near the Carousel and Post Office, as well as removing aging trees and undersized waterlines.
The second phase, which was originally scheduled to wrap up around Christmas of 2017, hit permitting snags with ODOT along the way, stalling construction. Although the second phase caused months of disruptions along the heavily trafficked Lyon and Ellsworth Streets downtown, the wait is almost over. According to Lindsey Austin, an engineer at the City of Albany’s Public Works Department, workers will be “finishing up at the end of the month with the exception of the paving work,” which is completely weather dependent.
The $8.5 million project funded by the Central Albany Revitalization Area began in January of 2017, but has origins dating back to 2001 when urban renewal planning began for the downtown. The mission of the agency was to form an urban renewal district with a master plan to prioritize public improvements that help foster private development in downtown Albany. Improving the pedestrian environment, retaining historic fabric, capitalizing on the river access, and increasing residential density were all focuses of the original CARA planning process.
Not Everyone Is Thrilled
Coordinating a project of this scale has many working parts. Construction crews and city officials have to be mindful of typical year-round events, impacts to traffic, parking, and businesses, while also navigating the often-dismal weather of the Willamette Valley. Pouring concrete and even planting trees requires specific types of weather, of course.
However, communication to everyone involved is also integral to the process. Talking briefly with business owners and patrons in downtown Albany, a lot of frustration with the project centered on the communication aspect, or lack thereof, from city officials. Among common complaints were the obvious parking interruptions, but also a lack of clarity on the duration of the project and a perceived unresponsiveness to business owners’ concerns.
Most businesses survived the chaos of construction and can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. But for some, it has left them feeling a little less enthusiastic, particularly on how the construction may have impacted last year’s Christmas sales.
Bolts to Blocks, a well-traveled fabric and quilting store that was located on 2nd Avenue was forced to move in February of this year because of challenges with parking and communications with the city – specifically during construction of the streetscape.
Barb Schoonover, owner of Bolts to Blocks said there were other factors that played into her decision, but the construction made it particularly difficult for her to run her business, which left her noticeably agitated with city officials and construction crews. Bolts to Blocks has a roomier space at its new location on Geary Street, not far from downtown, but one wonders if the streetscape issue may have pushed some over the edge.
Downtown Albany Making Some Moves
Aside from a changing streetscape, downtown Albany has seen quite a bit of positive activity from new restaurants to boutique shops. Lise Grato, director of the Albany Downtown Association, rattles off a dozen or so recent additions like West Side Bakery, Pacific Yew Yoga, and 3 Sheets Brewery to name a few. But she also notes that not all businesses will make it, especially if you treat it like it is a hobby.
There are still a number of great historic spaces that are available in downtown. In recent years, Grato explains that students from the University of Oregon School of Architecture have also been involved in trying to re-imagine vacant historic buildings in downtown Albany.
ADA’s Board of Directors features a host of downtown business owners and major players in downtown Albany’s resurgence like Rod Bigner of the Pix Theater. Another board member, Christina Larson, owner and principal of Varitone Architecture – also a recent addition to downtown Albany’s business community – has provided expertise in drawing up guidelines for streetscape and lighting improvements, according to Grato.
Some see Albany has a great opportunity to capitalize on the tight rental market of Corvallis. But just because there are vacant spaces, doesn’t necessarily mean the business climate is ideal. Some business owners have also expressed issues with building owners not providing much help with upkeep of retail spaces. Others are cautiously optimistic about the new streetscape, and how much it will really help. Nonetheless, the new and improved streetscape is here and both residents and city officials are likely excited to have this streetscape project almost behind them.
By Chris McDowell