College Avenue makeover continues
BLACKSBURG — At one end of College Avenue, the iron fence that has long divided Virginia Tech’s campus from downtown is gone.
Bare dirt and piled logs recently showed where Tech’s Henderson Lawn, a tree-dotted social hub for the town, has been cut into. Heavy construction equipment and stacks of pavers marked the starting point for the next phase of College Avenue’s makeover.
But at the other end of what may be Blacksburg’s most identifiable street, near Tech’s Squires Student Center, a new look that has been years in the planning is finally visible.
“It’s beautiful,” said Theresa Gunn, a manager at Top of the Stairs restaurant, the business closest to the completed section of the street.
From College Avenue’s curve near Tech’s Squires Student Center up to the row of businesses that starts with Top of the Stairs, the reconstructed roadway is now bordered by a wide sidewalk lined with decorative lamp posts and broad planters. A strip of Hokie stone separates the vehicle lane from a shallow gutter and the sidewalk.
For drivers, the biggest change is that the street is now a single-lane, one-way thoroughfare that carries traffic away from Main Street toward Squires and campus.
Construction of the first phase of what is officially termed the College Avenue Promenade took about five months. Earlier this month, work began on the second phase, starting at the Main Street end of College Avenue. It is scheduled to stay on the university side of the street until April and the end of classes. Then it will move to the town side of the street, in front of businesses, town engineering director Adele Schirmer said.
New, 28-foot-wide sidewalks are expected to accommodate a dramatic expansion of outdoor dining options. A new stage that can play to either Henderson Lawn or to the street, coupled with a network of posts that will allow sections of the street to be closed to vehicles, will make it easier to stage special events.
The entire project is scheduled to be finished before the annual Steppin’ Out festival in August 2013.
“From seeing the first half done, I am very excited about the completion of College Avenue and what it means for downtown,” said Blacksburg Mayor Ron Rordam. “It’s going to be a very different College Avenue and a much better College Avenue.”
Contracted to cost $3.5 million, the reconstruction of College Avenue has been planned for more than a decade. Part of the intent is to reduce the division between town and university. Instead of the now-removed iron fence and its brick posts, a low sitting-wall is planned for the campus boundary.
Rordam predicted that the project will turn College Avenue into “one site rather than two separate entities, the town and Virginia Tech.” The rebuilt street will fit well with the new Center for the Arts that Tech is building up the hill at the top of Henderson Lawn, he said.
Gunn, who is finishing a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Tech, said she wondered how long it will take for people to get used to the street’s new look. With no elevated curb and only the Hokie stone strip and a shallow gutter to separate sidewalk from vehicles, Gunn said sidewalk dining at first might be hard to sell to students.
“I’m not sure I’m going to want to sit at a table and look over and have traffic 10 feet away when I can go somewhere on campus and not have that,” she said.
On the other hand, the whole look and feel of the street will be different and better when the project is finished, Gunn said.
She declined to comment on whether Top of the Stairs, which already has a deck and outdoor space behind its building, will consider putting tables on the new sidewalk, saying that decision will be up to higher management.
A few doors down, the second-floor location of The Upper Room barbershop offered a prime vantage point on both the construction and the finished result.
Shop co-owner Karen Sowder said that from above, she and her customers probably can appreciate the multi-colored concrete of the new roadway and some of the designs in the sidewalk paving better than people at street level. Her windows have also let her watch a fair amount of confusion prompted by the project.
With the boundary between pedestrian and vehicle paths softened, “Everyone thinks the road’s a sidewalk,” Sowder said. “Cars come by and [drivers] say, ‘Why are you walking here?’ ”
Sowder and Gunn both said business has not been affected much by the work so far.
Schirmer wrote in an email this month that work on College Avenue has stayed on schedule and within budget. The only adjustments have been minor, such as dealing with underground utility crossings, and have not affected the timing or overall cost of the project, she wrote.
The town plans to maintain traffic on the street throughout the work.
Updates about the project are being posted on the town’s website at www.blacksburg.gov.
The Roanoke Times | 381-1669