May 29—Barring a rainy forecast, four blocks of Riverfront Drive through Old Town will shut down Friday morning, go on a crash diet over the weekend and reopen Monday morning with half as many through lanes.
The long-planned demonstration project is expected to last through the winter to determine if the busy roadway would work better with fewer driving lanes and wider sidewalks through the historic business district. If results are favorable, the changes are likely to be made permanent when a major reconstruction of Riverfront Drive is done in 2024 at a cost of $5 million to $7 million, bringing the prospect of sidewalk dining, public art and more landscaping to Old Town.
The concept has been discussed since 2016, the pilot project has been planned since 2019 and — after some delays — it's now ready to roll.
"It'll be a unique experiment," said Jon Andersen, who will get a front-row view from Nicollet Bike and Ski Shop, 607 N. Riverfront Drive.
On Friday, Saturday and Sunday, crews from Safety Signs LLC will be blasting away more than a mile's worth of pavement stripes and painting nearly 10,000 feet of white and yellow lines — marking the new driving lanes, center left-turn lanes and on-street parking stalls.
Twenty planters and 63 delineators — those three-foot-tall plastic poles glued to pavement as lane markers — will be placed to block off parts of Riverfront where driving and parking are no longer allowed.
And at Spring Street, concrete will be poured to create a pedestrian refuge midway across Riverfront Drive and a pedestrian-activated flashing beacon will be installed. Safety Signs workers and city staff will be working from sunrise to sunset on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"It'll be fairly intense," said Assistant City Engineer Michael McCarty of the work zone between Plum and Rock streets. "It'll be continuous activity."
A lengthy test
The road is expected to reopen by 7 a.m. Monday, June 6, although work will be ongoing during the remainder of the week along the sides of Riverfront Drive. In those areas where current road surface is to become future sidewalk and landscaping, 555 dots and 4,500 feet of artsy stripes will be painted — blue, brick red, white and orange — giving pedestrians a better sense of the additional space being provided for them.
And on Monday morning, complaints will be uttered by at least a few of the drivers heading to downtown Mankato, predicted Haily Steinbach of Christy's Crystals, 407 N. Riverfront.
"Some are kind of freaked out about it going to two lanes," Steinbach said.
Business owners, by contrast, are excited.
"I think it's great idea," said Kimberly Stanton, owner of Riverfront Bridal and Encore Consignment Boutique, 311 N. Riverfront. "If you've ever tried to cross Riverfront, it's loud, it's dirty, it's dangerous. Cars don't stop."
Like Steinbach, Stanton has few doubts that some drivers will grumble about travel time through the four-block area.
"We're going to get a lot of kickback," she said. "... Maybe it'll take a couple of more minutes. I think we can give up a few minutes of our time for safety."
Whatever the immediate emotions turn out to be, the pilot project is expected to continue into early spring of 2023 provided it isn't creating safety issues.
The 2024 construction project is a big one — disruptive enough and expensive enough that a similar project probably won't be scheduled again for decades. So city officials believe now is the time to investigate alternative designs for Riverfront Drive that work for truckers trying to do a job, for commuters looking to move through the area as quickly as possible and for patrons of Old Town shops, bars and restaurants desiring a more pleasant atmosphere.
"We want to make it functional and enjoyable for all users," McCarty said.
Unlike traditional street construction, the most important work of the demonstration project will begin only after the road crews go home. In the months ahead, city staff will be collecting scads of data on how Riverfront Drive functions under the new design.
Precise statistics have already been compiled on the current Riverfront Drive, which carries 18,000 daily vehicles on four through lanes. The same factors will be measured under the new configuration — one lane in each direction with a new left-turn lane in the center of the street, according to Public Works Director Jeff Johnson, who outlined the project for the City Council earlier this month.
The data will include before and after numbers for average speeds, pedestrian crossings, percentage of drivers yielding to pedestrians, driver travel time through the corridor, crash rates, peak-hour traffic volumes on Riverfront, and peak-hour traffic volumes on Second Street (which some drivers are expected to use as an alternate route to downtown).
"We wanted to make clear what the measurements would be before we went out and did the project," Johnson said. "... So that we could talk to the public about whether it was successful or not."
For it to be a true test, city leaders decided to expand the demonstration project beyond the original plan of simply painting lines demarking the new lanes, parking stalls and curb bump-outs at intersections. T
he delineators will mark the bump-outs, providing a true test of any difficulties caused by the narrower street for truckers leaving industrial facilities on the northwestern side of Riverfront. The planters will give drivers a better sense of the more constricted driving lanes than pavement paint alone.
"That will help constrict the road to give the true feeling of a three-lane roadway," Johnson said. "... (With striping alone) people would just go back to their normal patterns during odd hours and at times of low traffic."
The more extensive demonstration, and the ambitious plans for gathering information about the performance, should provide a very tangible test.
"We do fully expect that some of the delineators are going to get hit, some are going to be knocked down," Johnson said. "We're prepared for that."
Along with collecting data, the city will be seeking views on the changes from drivers, pedestrians and business owners for the length of the demonstration project.
"Good and bad, we want to hear from folks," McCarty said. "The experience people are having is critical to knowing the success."
Opinions will be gathered on the city's online outreach page everyvoice.mankatomn.gov, will be welcomed via the 311 municipal info line and will be sought at community events in and around Old Town.
Andersen of Nicollet Bike predicts the project will demonstrate that fewer traffic lanes and wider sidewalks make Old Town more pleasant.
"My worry is what will happen to Second Street, which really can't handle the additional traffic," he said.
Steinbach is optimistic, thinking the planned changes could draw more pedestrians and transform the aesthetic of Old Town, which was in deep decline a couple of decades ago but has undergone a renaissance.
People already enjoy strolling by the variety of shops, she said, but the speed and volume of traffic is worrisome for parents of younger children.
"It's really hard walking down Riverfront, especially if you have a multitude of kids," she said.
Stanton asks skeptics of the changes to try to be objective as the experiment begins.
"I just hope people can keep an open mind, because it has been controversial," she said. "And if we give it a chance, maybe it will work out."
Whether it's realistic that any makeover of Riverfront Drive can satisfy all of its varied users is to be determined, according to Johnson.
"We've been working on this project now since 2019, to try to bring a demonstration project to Riverfront Drive to answer the question in everybody's mind: Is it possible ...?"
City officials will be watching weather reports closely through mid-week before making a final decision on whether the demonstration will kick off on June 6. Considering the amount of pavement paint involved in the project, an extremely wet weekend forecast would require the work to be delayed for a week.
McCarty expects a decision by Wednesday or Thursday, providing time to warn people of the three-day closure of Riverfront. Traffic would be detoured to Second Street between Main Street and Madison Avenue.