Where to go with Winslow Way?

Though it hasn’t yet made the transition from concept to concrete, the Winslow Way Streetscape has already made its mark.

City leaders are losing sleep. Business owners are losing confidence. And both are lamenting the convergence of increasing needs, a city budget crunch and a weakening economy.

Amid several unanswered questions regarding the streetscape, one thing is certain: with a deadline looming, and the community watching, the pressure is on.

“I sit here and you sit there and we’re looking at one another and I’m listening to you ask me to make a decision,” said City Councilwoman Debbie Vancil at Wednesday’s council meeting. “This is about timing. We’ve been pressured. You’ve been pressured. To make the decision together, we need to drop the pressure.”

The pressure was palpable at City Hall Wednesday, as councilors and planners discussed plans to fix failing infrastructure on Winslow Way.

The city must decide by April 9 whether to move ahead with design work for the streetscape, or risk delaying it by a year.

Even if it does move forward, the streetscape won’t look like it once did, following recent alterations done to reduce its cost.

After an initial price tag of $20.6 million, planners now say the streetscape – set to repair utilities and perhaps upgrade the surface of Winslow Way between State Route 305 and Grow Avenue – could cost as little as $11.3 million.

For now, groundbreaking is set for spring 2009, though the fate of the project could change over the next week and a half leading to the council’s decision.

Plans for street trees, lighting, paving surfaces and underground power lines were all recently scaled back or eliminated based on recommendations made by a team of experts in a recent value engineering study.

Prompted by Councilwoman Kim Brackett, the study confirmed the validity of cost estimates, but suggested about $6 million in total cuts, and the city has since made more cuts of its own.

Project Manager Chris Wierzbicki said he’d like to see the streetscape proceed on two separate, but simultaneous tracks.

One would push forward the $11.3 million bare minimum – street and utility repairs, without any added features above ground – which most people agree needs to happen regardless.

The second track would be a package of about $3.6 million worth of above ground improvements, for which the city over the next several months would need to find funding, perhaps from a voted bond.

Councilors will hold a special workshop at 6 p.m. April 2 at City Hall to continue the discussion, before a design contract is brought forward for approval April 9.

Wednesday’s workshop was at times emotional for leaders and business owners struggling to plot a course through changing times. Past meetings have seen plenty of vocal opposition to the streetscape. This time, supporters worried about delays came out in force.

A petition urging the city to complete the project was introduced by several downtown business owners, some of whom spoke to the council.

“I love this town,” said John Hays, owner of Port Madison Home, on Winslow Way. “Times change, people change. We all make decisions one day at a time about what type of community we’re going to have.”

Hays, whose business moved into the space by longtime downtown anchor Winslow Hardware, said he was sorry to see the hardware store close because he understands what local businesses mean to residents and the island economy. Though his own business has slowed down of late, he said he doesn’t want to see the project stall. That doesn’t mean he isn’t worried about the potential impacts of construction on sales that are already sagging.

“Those of us who survive this year are looking at a time when there’s going to be lots of dirt on Winslow Way,” he said.

Alyse McConnell sold her Winslow Way business 15 months ago, but said she’s still concerned about the futures of the neighbors with whom she once shared a piece of the existing streetscape.

“It’s very difficult to efficiently plan when you’re living in fear,” she said. “I really feel like it’s time to make a decision to go forward so we can articulately call out what the merchants can expect.”

Some spoke from the other side of the cash register about the importance of protecting downtown businesses.

“Not only is Winslow the center of the island,” said Julie Shryock. “We rely on Winslow to provide our daily necessities. My fear is that by the end of the project, (the current businesses) won’t be there. The prospect of it being all T-shirt shops by the time we’re done is really frightening to me.”

Leaders, too, exchanged weighty words, with public safety at the forefront.

Councilwoman Hilary Franz said she knows Winslow Way needs to be fixed, but asked Wierzbicki whether there are more pressing problems on other roads around the island.

Wierzbicki acknowledged that road problems are abundant, but said Winslow Way presents the biggest quandary of them all.

“In terms of affecting the most people there’s no doubt in my mind that this street has the biggest impact on the most amount of people,” he said. “There are some places where the storm sewer is in such bad shape that there could be a sinkhole.”

In addition to the possibility of sinkholes, Wierzbicki warned that an inadequate water main beneath the street has since 1985 been below fire code, and could inhibit firefighters should there be fire downtown.

Leaders also are torn over the construction schedule. Planners insist a nine-month, around the clock approach is ideal, but the value engineering team recommended the streetscape be finished over 24 months.

Brackett isn’t sure the shorter timeline is realistic, and said the project hasn’t been defined well enough to warrant moving ahead right now.

“I’ve been laying awake nights worrying about it,” she said. “I need to have it played out. What are the business owners going to encounter and what is the public going to encounter.”

Wierzbicki said many of the logistics of construction are to be worked out in the next phase of the project, which would begin with the council’s approval of another contract with Seattle firm Heery International. The amount of the contract hasn’t yet been determined.

Not under grounding power would save the city time and money, but some councilors said it would be shortsighted not to bury power lines while the street is torn up. Doing the work now would mean Puget Sound Energy would bear more of the cost than if the work is done later.

Many local business owners this week said they’re interested in under grounding power, but wouldn’t want to contribute to a local improvement district to help pay for it because it would be too expensive.

Funding help could come from a local Motor Vehicle Excise Tax that Wierzbicki said could generate an additional $1 million, though, like many elements of the streetscape, it still needs to be worked out.

Money was central to Wednesday’s discussion. More than the merits of the project, some councilors were concerned about the city’s troubled finances. Despite the recent cuts, the project still would rely heavily on bonds, and the city’s debt capacity is waning.

The least expensive streetscape option would be funded by about $7.5 million in utility revenue; $3 million would be paid for by councilmanic debt, with the remaining $800,000 to come from a federal grant.

Council Chair Bill Knobloch has continually questioned where streetscape funding would ultimately come from. He said the city can’t realistically tackle any project until it’s clear how much money is available.

“We’re not dealing with reality here, folks,” Knobloch said. “The real reality of all this is that we’ve put the cart before the horse. We have serious cash problems because we don’t have funding sources other than debt.”

The city also is on the hook for several other costly projects, among them a new wastewater treatment facility and the Quay Bainbridge Apartments, the sale of which is still pending.

City Councilman Chris Snow said the city’s money troubles were made worse by the council’s unforeseen spending in 2007, particularly on the Meigs Farm and Williams property open space purchases, which cost a combined $3.2 million.

“Last year we were spending money like drunken sailors, some would say on essential projects,” he said. “Now we’ve all been struck by the realization that our financial capacity is finite and we’ve been paralyzed by that.”

Despite that, Snow said he’s ready to continue with the streetscape.

“I don’t think we are in dire financial straits,” he said. “I think that just like private businesses all over who are facing new realities, we have to make some changes in the way we go about things. It doesn’t mean we have to call a halt to everything, jump into bed and pull the covers over our head.”

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