Mar. 20—Upwards of 10,000 cars use University Avenue every day, connecting two mainstays of the city: downtown Grand Forks and UND. Until recently, the roadway was in rough shape, littered with potholes and bumps along the way.
But even with a newly minted road surface, more improvements may be coming to the so-called University Avenue Corridor.
City leaders have started to dive into a newly released study organized by the local Community Foundation of and the Knight Foundation that gives the city recommendations to further improve the University Avenue Corridor. Among the numerous recommendations are improving safety for pedestrians and bicyclists, finding new ways to boost activity in the corridor and creating a community identity.
"This corridor in itself is a historic and unique neighborhood that represents an important part of Grand Forks," Mike McLean, senior project manager and Grand Forks market leader for JLG Architects, said in a statement on the JLG website. "It was important to us to be sure that we gave the neighborhood its due respect and took a thoughtful approach as we discussed potential changes and enhancements to University Avenue."
The study, which focused on the area between Columbia Road and North Third Street, began in summer 2019 with multiple community engagement sessions that year. At the sessions, attendees were asked what they would like to see improved in the area. Additionally, an online survey was conducted.
At present, the study is just a list of recommendations made to the city, but Grand Forks Mayor Brandon Bochenski told the Herald earlier this week that while the study is essentially a "wish list" for now, he said it's "pretty exciting" to see some of the ideas.
"Hopefully there's pieces that we can add," he said. "... Hopefully we can find pieces of it and can find the money to make that happen."
But with the study in hand, what happens next? For now, even the potential costs — and how they would be funded — are unknown.
City Administrator Todd Feland says the study reinforces what the city already is doing and gives leaders potential actions.
"Our future is bright (and) we've got lots of momentum," he said. "I think this corridor has lots of things going for it right now and only further momentum to come. There are only further tools that we can use to really deliver."
Some aspects of the study, like the quality of the University Avenue roadway, already were addressed by the city through a mill-and-overlay project last year that helped smooth the road. Additionally, improvements were made to the roadway through UND's campus with new stop lights added along the university corridor and more defined pedestrian crossings and new lighting added. Feland noted that the downtown area also has had improvements over the last year or so.
There are also new road projects planned for the near future along Columbia Road, which will also help add to the corridor, Feland said.
One of the top discussion points for citizens was safety along the corridor.
The survey found that:
57% of respondents feel the corridor is not safe for biking, while 26% feel it is safe.
More than 64% of respondents feel the corridor is safe for drivers.
Around 56% of respondents feel there is not enough lighting on the corridor; 21% feel the lighting is adequate.
Throughout the community engagement process, lighting was continually mentioned as a barrier to both real and perceived safety, especially during the winter when daylight is limited. The study suggests the city integrate consistent, pedestrian-scaled lighting along the corridor that is complementary to the new lighting on the UND campus. It suggests fixtures that incorporate banners, flower baskets or other items.
A potential reduction in traffic speed to 25 mph was suggested in the study. It also suggests low-cost enhancements — like crosswalk paint and providing crosswalks at bus stops and bus shelters — may help with safety along the corridor. Making University Avenue more accessible for bicycles and other modes of transportation was a focal point.
The study gives recommendations geared toward improving and implementing bicycle infrastructure, including adding multi-use path options that diverge from the road with defined curbs.
Feland said improving bus stops and bus shelters is something small the city can easily do. Same with incorporating public art, he said.
University Park must be treated as a central component to the corridor, according to respondents. The study found that 95% of those surveyed feel it is important to preserve the park, which is just east of the UND campus and hosts various events throughout the year.
In a survey that was given at a community gathering, "park events" was the top choice for programming activities that people would like to see along the corridor. Feland said he was struck by just how much people love the park and parks in general.
The study includes a business component, too. For instance, it suggests redeveloping "opportunity lots" — underutilized lots that exist along the corridor — and making "a few policy changes that would go a long way toward spurring new activity." Among the suggested policy changes are a modification of city parking requirements.
It suggests establishing a residential improvement district that could potentially increase rental property fees for property owners and then take those fees to invest back in the neighborhood. This could, the study suggests, "be a solution to improving the neighborhood" and the fees could be used for maintenance, corridor branding, public art or other actions to "make the neighborhood more aesthetically pleasing and vibrant."
The study also suggest encouraging more "neighborhood shops."
The Community Foundation and the Knight Foundation, along with help from JLG Architects, helped put together the study and recommendations. Now, Community Foundation Executive Director Becca Baumbach says it's time for the community to take ownership of the study and the next steps.
"We're really asking the community, different organizations, businesses, individuals, to step up and champion one or more of the ideas that were brought forward," she said.
There's a long road ahead before any of these potential projects become reality, though. Costs and project timelines are a ways out, Feland noted.
Before these ideas get to action, Feland said engaging the community on the potential projects will be important.
"Hopefully, this not only inspires this University Avenue Corridor, but other corridors where people can say, 'Hey, if they can do it on University, what can you do in my neighborhood?" Feland said.