A high-priority road construction project has reached one of Grand Junction's most traveled corridors, currently in the throes of redevelopment and still reeling from the news that a neighborhood grocery store will close next month.
Though many stakeholders see opportunity in the renovation and possible widening of the Interstate 70 Business Loop, running through the heart of lower downtown, others received the news that their properties would be bordered by the construction like hearing the dentist say they needed a root canal. They'll be relieved when it's over, but the anticipation and the procedure aren't something they relish.
Colorado Department of Transportation officials started meeting with stakeholders who have property bordering the project, specifically along Pitkin Avenue from First Street to Sixth Street, a few months ago, and those meetings with about 30 property owners have spurred some concerns about the potential design for the roads.
I-70B is a main artery through the valley, connecting drivers from the route west of First Street through the heart of downtown, all the way to Clifton and hooking back up with an interchange for the interstate.
The corridor has been prioritized as a "tier one" project for years and has always been near the top of the list for projects in the region, according to CDOT district engineer Rob Beck.
Though it was a top-tier project, it didn't seem funding would be available in the near future. However, the design phase of the project sped up prior to the election, as CDOT anticipated the possible passage of Proposition 110, a roads construction funding question known as "Let's Go Colorado." The measure would have increased sales taxes amounting to 6.2 cents per $10 purchase to fund state highways, city and county transportation needs and other modes of transportation for the next 20 years. Voters rejected the measure, likely triggering another ballot question that will be referred to the November 2019 ballot, asking voters to approve $2.3 billion in bonds for transportation projects.
Beck said it's impossible to tell exactly how long it will be until there's adequate funding, but his office is moving forward with the appointments made with property owners along the corridor and with the design phase for the project. He expects the intersection of First and Grand to cost at least $10 million and said construction might not begin until 2021.
CDOT first started looking at improvements to the corridor more than a decade ago and published an environmental assessment in 2008. This included studies suggesting traffic flow would need an additional lane on one-way Ute and Pitkin avenues to keep cars flowing at an acceptable pace. Since then, slower growth in the valley has shown the initial traffic projections were somewhat inflated. However, an updated traffic study in 2015 still recommended a third lane in both directions, based on projections for traffic to year 2040.
Property owners fear isolation, restricted development
The third lane of traffic is the crux of the concern with some neighboring property owners, who say Pitkin Avenue is already hazardous to cross with two lanes and fear adding another lane of cars will only make it more precarious for pedestrians.
Dustin Anzures, who bought the Grand Junction Union Station and is renovating it to house a restaurant and other retail tenants, said he's concerned about how customers will access the depot from downtown.
He estimates he will invest another $2 million in his building for the anchor tenant, which hasn't been finalized yet, and some of the delay is due to the uncertainty with the traffic project. Access from pedestrians, coming from the soon-to-be five downtown hotels, is a valuable amenity to a business in the depot, but not if the property becomes more isolated from the Main Street area by even more traffic.
Anzures said he's not against CDOT's plans to renovate the corridor.
"We want the investment, we want the improvements, we have an opportunity to do something really great," he said.
For hotelier Steve Reimer, the project could put a huge dent in a proposed $15 million project to build a 100-room hotel and 10,000-square-foot ballroom attached to Two Rivers Convention Center.
The proposed redesign could significantly cut into the parking area for the hotel, which is slated to break ground in late 2020. Renderings of the project show the hotel attaching to the convention center on the south side of the building where the outdoor convention center parking lot currently sits. Mesa Pawn will be torn down to make room for more hotel parking. Reimer said with 100 rooms, he needs at least 100 parking spaces, but the softening of the curve where First Street becomes Pitkin would eat into some of that space.
"At this point, the potential is for us to lose a $15 million project if we can't fit it in and it restricts the ability to expand south," Reimer said. "Any reduction in parking spaces is big concern going forward."
Reimer, along with his brother Kevin, own and operate three hotels in downtown Grand Junction and are in the process of building a fourth that should open in mid-2019.
Up until now, Reimer said the convention center has used the overflow parking lot at City Market during large events. But that could be a problem after the grocery store closes in January. If a tenant is found to take over the remainder of the grocer's lease, they might have different plans for the parking area. The Reimers also purchased an old Wells Fargo drive-thru area that could be used for parking, but it is on the opposite side of Ute Avenue and would be more difficult to use if the road is expanded to three lanes.
Reimer also worries that the widening will cut off his existing hotels on Main Street and the coming Tru Hotel on Colorado Avenue from possible destinations such as the development at the train station.
"Anytime you have a wide street that isn't pedestrian-friendly, it restricts development," he said.
The Reimers and Brandon Stam, who oversees the Downtown Development Authority and Downtown Business Improvement District, met with CDOT officials about six weeks ago when it appeared that funding might be available if ballot measures to fund transportation projects passed.
Now that those measures failed and funding isn't immediately available, Reimer hopes to revisit the plans and come to a more amicable solution. He said he understands CDOT's desire to move traffic quickly and safely through the corridor, but he feels there is a better way than the current plan.
"They are charged with moving traffic, they're not concerned with what's on either side of the street," Reimer said. "I understand that."
Reimer isn't alone. Stam said many downtown businesses have concerns over expanding Ute and Pitkin avenues.
The fear is that it will further isolate the south side of downtown, which some feel is ripe for development.
"There's a big concern from property owners about cutting off that corridor from downtown. You can't cross the street due to higher speeds," Stam said, adding that he feels the corridor doesn't need to expand at this point.
"My concern is that three lanes is excessive for the more current timeframe. It just seems like we're jumping the gun on 2040 projections."
Jeff Reid, who bought the property at 330 S. Second St. in March and plans to open a brewpub sometime in 2019, is concerned about access to his business when the project gets going.
He's hopeful that CDOT might revisit the plan and find a solution that is more pedestrian-friendly.
Reid said he would like to see an area for people to cross the street safely, such as a stoplight or pedestrian crosswalk. He would prefer the stoplight.
"I would support that," Reid said. "I'm a big proponent for pedestrian crossings."
Stam, however, said crosswalks might only slightly improve safety if the roads are widened.
"We have crosswalks all over downtown," he said. "That doesn't mean people use them."
Other businesses in that area, such as GJ Auto Sales, would be significantly impacted by the project. The business, which has bought and sold cars for 16 years, would have its Pitkin entrance cut off and access diminished. Further complicating things is the possibility of transforming Second Street into a one-way road traveling north. That would require cars to drive around the area and circle back to access the business.
Owner Mike Martinez declined to speak on the record about the CDOT project, saying he wanted to spend more time communicating with CDOT about his concerns.
Project designers mindful of pedestrians
Beck, the CDOT engineer, acknowledges some property owners and particularly the business community downtown would rather not add traffic lanes and encourage traffic to flow faster through the area. His agency is receiving some pushback from those who have a vision for that lower downtown area to be more pedestrian-friendly, a competing interest in some ways to CDOT's mission to keep traffic flowing.
"Their concern is they want people to stop, rest and open their wallets," Beck said.
Grand Junction Public Works Director Trent Prall and his staff have participated in several meetings with CDOT, property owners and stakeholders about possible design solutions.
"We're pushing CDOT hard to make sure that this design is sensitive to the downtown context," Prall said. "It's resonating."
He said the city is offering some of its property bordering the convention center, the site of the old pawn shop, to the state to "soften" the curve from First Street as it turns into Pitkin Avenue and has shared ideas to create pedestrian-friendly areas, as well as support for an idea to install a timed traffic light to allow walkers to cross Pitkin Avenue by Union Station.
"If they put a red, yellow, green signal to get pedestrians across, that would be a positive," Prall said.
The catch to that, Beck said, is maintaining the carefully timed series of traffic lights along Pitkin Avenue. The crossing signal would be controlled by the timing of traffic, not a pedestrian pushing a button to trigger the signal. And that means people would need to wait to cross.
The last phase of the I-70B construction ended at the North Avenue interchange. The current phase of the construction project extends from Mulberry Street to Rood Avenue, through the massive intersection at First Street and Grand Avenue.
The design for Pitkin Avenue, which travels along the corner in front of Grand Junction Union Station, isn't likely to have a finalized design for a while, Beck said. But current designs call for possibly turning Second Street into a one-way northbound route, adding the third lane to Pitkin Avenue, and possibly having some sort of traffic-control device for pedestrians to cross Pitkin Avenue at the Second Street intersection.
Designers have considered other ways for pedestrians to cross the roadway, including a pedestrian bridge and an underpass-like tunnel. But a combination of cost, safety concerns and consideration of human behavior has nixed those ideas. The city removed a tunnel connecting West Main Street to the Riverside neighborhood in 2008 because of safety concerns and problems with transients littering the corridor.
"Even if we didn't have the homeless situation that we have down in this area, there are still not enough eyes on that space for safety," Prall said.
Designers considered a possible raised walkway over First Street near the county services building, but said pedestrians are unlikely to walk down from Union Station to climb up a pedestrian walkway, over First Street and back down to Main Street, especially with luggage.
Stam is glad for the extra discussion time with CDOT, but he also knows that funding could come at any time.
"The silver lining is that there is a chance to look at this because they don't have the money, but that could change quickly," he said.
He added that he recognizes the need for improvement, but hopes other options are explored.
"I don't think anyone is saying it's great now," he said. "Some things would be a huge improvement."