Past, future converge in Main Street Makeover

Preparations for the $7.6-million rebuilding of Main Street through downtown Rochester have been underway for the last couple of years. Now, with a bid about to be awarded, workers are set to start digging in April.

Main Street between Second and University will be totally closed for an estimated 90 days. But other than a detour around that stretch, downtown will be open for business as usual.

“We’ve been communicating this solid for a year,” said Nik Banda, the city of Rochester’s Economic Development Director and Deputy City Manager. At a standing-room-only meeting for downtown property owners Tuesday, he said there was little angst. “I think we’ve communicated enough, they got it,” he said. “We’re ready to roll.”

Still, as the day draws near, merchants no doubt are wondering what the summer will be like. Greg Nowak, co-owner of Twinsite Optical, said he doesn’t know what to expect.

“It could be disastrous; it may not be so bad,” he said. “I just worry people will avoid the area because of the hassle.” He’s also worried that a known Indian burial ground under Home Bakery could cause delay.

“Business has been kind of slow, but I think it’s been picking up lately,” Nowak said. “I’m more of a destination. If people want to get glasses from me, the road’s not going to stop them.” He doesn’t plan to increase his advertising budget and says the DDA does “a good job of promoting downtown Rochester.”

The roadwork and streetscaping improvements are largely federally funded via the Michigan Department of Transportation, with additional funding from the city of Rochester and the Downtown Development Authority. The project includes road reconstruction from the Clinton River Bridge to the Paint Creek Bridge, a new water main and water lines, lighting upgrades, rebuilt planting areas, aggregate sidewalks, improved crosswalks and new benches, trash receptacles and bollards.

By closing the road from University to Second, construction will to be completed six to eight weeks quicker than partial closure, Banda said. The city has also given permission for work to go on around the clock, seven days a week, and there are big financial incentives to get it done on time.

Digging up history

In the lead up to construction, the historical community has met with MDOT to discuss what relics of Rochester’s past might be unearthed.

“They asked us to identify any historical things they might run into when digging,” said Rod Wilson, President of the Rochester-Avon Historical Society. Research indicates coal bins and cisterns still exist, so engineers checked basements along Main to see what might be under the road. Wilson said one cistern will be preserved, covered with Plexiglas and explained with a sign. He hopes a coal bin will be found and preserved as well.

Wilson said a 1940 photo shows gas pumps on the sidewalk in four spots. He hasn’t been able to find anyone who knows whether the underground tanks were ever removed. He said MDOT will do some test digging around Home Bakery to try to locate the burial mound. He knows it’s there, “but how big is it?” he said. “They also have alerted the federal government, an Indian chief and the state people so when they do start digging, they’re all on call.”

Though the original 1916 brick road is expected to be found, there seems to be disagreement as to whether streetcar tracks are still in place. “We were told many years ago those were all pulled out for the war effort,” Wilson said. “But who knows?” Any small items that turn up will be displayed in a storefront downtown.

Detours, access, events

To assist traffic circulation, the city has resurfaced Olde Towne Road, reopened the northern extension of Mill Street off Second, added new access driveways in some alleys and made all alleys one way. Enhancement work on the Riverwalk at Main Street is expected to be wrapped up as soon as the weather breaks. Walnut and Water streets will be available as alternatives to Main.

Banda said while traffic may be difficult for the first few days, the recent closure of the Avon Road bridge at Livernois in Rochester Hills shows drivers quickly find their own best route. “People found their way around it and I think the same thing’s going to happen,” he said.

Parking for 94 cars along Main Street will be temporarily off limits. “The conventional parking is gone (but) 95 percent of our businesses have rear entrances,” Banda said. A six-foot-wide sidewalk will be open along Main Street during the entire project and front entrances will be open. “Park in back; shop like you normally do,” he said.

With up to 200 construction workers on the project, Banda said some businesses may do very well during the project. In addition, the DDA is ramping up its schedule of summer activities downtown.

Ewe Revue 2 will bring back a very popular public art event that debuted in 2001. Decorated fiberglass sheep on a Hollywood theme will be on display around town from May 11 through September. The DDA is also looking for sheep from the original event.

DDA Executive Director Kristi Trevarrow said this year’s Ewe Revue will offer two options: Sponsors can choose the same size sheep as was used in the 2001 event, or a flock of four “mini” sheep. Sponsorships are still available.

“We’re doing well on our sponsorships,” Trevarrow said, though she acknowledged that this year is a “different economy, different time.”

Other popular downtown summer events will continue. Sidewalk Sales will move off Main and Movies in the Moonlight has been expanded. A new event, Junk in the Trunk, is scheduled for Aug. 11. Vendors will be able to buy a parking space in the lot at Third and Walnut and sell wares.

When it’s all over, it’ll be just about time for the Big Bright Light Show. “That is going to help us absolutely with that learning curve pretty quickly,” Trevarrow said. “If that’s going on, downtown must be open.”

Kerri Vizena, who grew up in Rochester and is has been co-ownership of the Silk Worm since April, said she’s not worried about how the summer will go. Weddings are a big part of her business, and she’ll do as much offsite business as she can. She has her eye firmly on the prize.

“I’m just really excited about the downtown and its renovation,” she said. “So I look more toward the end result. … I’m just very pleased with the idea to move forward and revitalize downtown.”

Rochester business owners are invited to a forum about the Main Street makeover on February 29 at 6 p.m. at the Royal Park Hotel. There will also be a community open house Thursday, March 8 at 6 p.m. at Rochester Community House. MDOT and the city will have an office on Main during construction.

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