A $9.3 million project to narrow Arizona Avenue through downtown Chandler will move forward over the objections of several area business owners and with only the thinnest margin of support from the City Council.
On Thursday night, the City Council was expected to award Achen-Gardner Engineering a $350,000 contract to conduct a utility survey, draft the roadway designs and develop a cost estimate for improvements to Arizona Avenue between Chandler Boulevard and Frye Road. Construction is expected to be complete by the end of next year, when the new City Hall is slated to be done.
The council on Monday voted 4-3 to approve a plan that would narrow a portion of Arizona Avenue from six lanes to four and would sacrifice on-street parking in favor of bicycle lanes and the retention of turn lanes at Boston Street. R.J. Zeder, public works director, said the roadway isn't wide enough to include all three.
"You simply can't accommodate all of the desirable features that otherwise might be included," Zeder said.
The intent is to create a pedestrian-friendly community core with wider sidewalks, new landscaping and a shorter distance to traverse for people crossing Arizona Avenue. The plan also is expected to spur downtown redevelopment, officials have said.
The plan has support from the Chandler Chamber of Commerce and from area businessmen like Niels Kreipke, whose Desert Viking firm has been responsible for a significant amount of downtown redevelopment.
"I think it's absolutely necessary to get this project done," Kreipke said.
Others, however, are not as enthused. Roger Baldwin, owner of Murphy's Law Irish Pub in the downtown square, said the square already has a "good vibe to it," with 95 percent occupancy. Narrowing Arizona Avenue will decrease the area's exposure, he said.
"Traffic flow brings business. I don't see the value in restricting the traffic flow," Baldwin said. "It's not the depressed area that they're claiming it is."
Laurie Fagen, co-owner of Art on Boston, 11 W. Boston St., said the reduced traffic, along with the expected nine-month construction period, could put the squeeze on struggling businesses. She said the project is ill-timed.
"I do fear it will greatly affect a lot of businesses in the downtown area, not just during construction, but long after," Fagen said. "With the downturn in the economy, a lot of us are hanging on by a sheer thread."
Some traffic would shift over to the parallel streets of McQueen and Alma School roads, city officials have said. Baldwin said it doesn't make sense to move traffic from the commercial area along Arizona Avenue - a state highway - to residential roadways.
"They're going to put large-load vehicles into your community," he said.
Baldwin also questioned whether pedestrian safety was a legitimate issue for the downtown. Detective Frank Mendoza, Chandler Police Department spokesman, said the area does not have a history of accidents involving pedestrians.
"I can't remember us having any serious problems there," he said.
Councilmen Jack Sellers, Jeff Weninger and Matt Orlando cast the dissenting votes on Monday. Orlando said it's not prudent for Chandler to spend millions of dollars widening roads and intersections elsewhere in the city, only to narrow Arizona Avenue downtown.
"It just defies my logic why we're restricting traffic flow in a critical area of our city," he said.
Light rail eventually could be extended down Arizona Avenue in the coming decades, Orlando said. Doing so would eliminate the road's two interior lanes, he said. But city officials previously rejected plans to reduce the roadway's width that much.
Instead of narrowing the road, the city could take steps like widening sidewalks by a more modest amount and extending a landscaped median for pedestrians crossing the street.
"I think there are other ways we can do this that are more economical right now," he said.
Kreipke, on the other hand, said the area needs a more comprehensive solution for pedestrian access. Many downtown sidewalks don't meet federal requirements pertaining to access for the disabled and need to be fixed anyway, he said.
"The question is, 'Do you want to keep putting a Band-Aid on this or do you want to create a unique area?'" Kreipke said.
He said opponents are making too much of the proposed narrowing, since the only six-lane segment bisects Dr. A.J. Chandler Park, where he believes pedestrian improvements are needed. Moreover, city officials have made commitments over the years to downtown developers that the work would be done, he said.
Jerry Bustamante, Chandler Chamber of Commerce president, said he believes the project will spur redevelopment.
"It will give us an opportunity to make Arizona Avenue more attractive to private investment," Bustamante said. "Certainly, doing nothing, we believe, is not a good option."