JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The dust is about to settle on the first phase of Johnson City’s $34 million West Walnut Street redevelopment, and area business owners and residents couldn’t be happier about it.
“I’m very much looking forward to getting past the gravel stage,” Nathan Brand, a partner in Timber Restaurant, told News Channel 11 Wednesday.
Hal Hunter, who lives in the 500 block of West Maple Street near its intersection with Southwest Avenue, called navigating the neighborhood “the challenge of the day.
“You’re never quite sure,” said Hunter, whose nearby intersection has been a bumpy ride for months when it hasn’t been completely blocked. “You leave in the morning and head out and when you come home (sometimes) you can’t come back the way you left.”
After about a year of torn-up streets and sidewalks from Watauga Avenue east to Buffalo Street, things are about to get better, City Engineer Wallace McCulloch said.
“What we’re all pretty excited about is the fact that we finished all the sewer and water from West Watauga to here,” McCulloch said while standing in front of the Ashe Street Courthouse. “All that’s done and everything underground, the storm, the drainage, it’s mostly done.”
That leaves the city and Summers-Taylor, the general contractor, needing to finish some last drainage work on West Walnut and then bury electrical and communications conduit over the next several weeks before starting some long-awaited paving.
“As soon as that gets done we can start doing curb and gutter and asphalt,” McCulloch said. “So probably within a couple weeks, give or take, we’re going to start on Sevier Street putting in curb and gutter, asphalt, so there will be something to drive on besides that dusty roads.”
The work will then continue on Walnut itself, Ashe Street, which parallels Walnut from Buffalo west to Sevier, and on other cross streets — West Watauga and Earnest. It will also clean up intersections along West Maple at Sevier, Southwest Avenue and Earnest that have been impacted and created bumpy rides along the Tree Streets’ residential street closest to Walnut.
“All that gravel and dust and everything will go away,” McCulloch said, adding that the whole process could take until at least spring of 2023. In the meantime, some temporary asphalt will be put down as early as next week, up West Watauga and then down Walnut to Southwest.
“It’ll be asphalt that people can drive on as opposed to driving on dusty roads.”
That’s the good news, and it was received with much rejoicing by Brand and Hunter. Several cross streets along Maple have been torn up during most of 2022.
The not so great news is that the project is now some months behind its original target date at this stage. Both phases were set to be complete by fall 2023 when News Channel 11 spoke to construction coordinator Rick Kilgore in October 2021, though Kilgore said weather and “surprises” could slow the timeline “slightly.”
Slightly has now reached about nine months. McCulloch said phase two, which will create the same type of disruptions from Watauga westward to University Parkway, in late summer 2023.
“We’re wanting to get this end substantially complete so that people can at least see progress, so they get some hope…because I know it’s been a tough haul for most people,” McCulloch said of phase one, which covers nearly two-thirds of the total project area.
The scheduling reboot now has McCulloch saying the city is “hoping to be finished by the spring, maybe summer of ’24.”
He called that type of delay, and the several cost hikes that have also occurred, pretty standard for a project of this magnitude. “Nothing’s been real excessive,” he said, pointing to the 100-year-old infrastructure that’s being replaced, underground utilities and a major streetscaping overhaul.
Plans also call for several new green spaces, an extension of Cherokee Street to help alleviate traffic bottlenecks around University Parkway, State of Franklin and Walnut, and new park-like pedestrian areas.
The massive plan has city leaders, project workers and neighbors like Brand and Hunter excited enough to endure the current headaches.
Inconvenienced for the cause
“I don’t think it’s helping business to have to drive through gravel and the amount of dust and things like that,” Brand said, standing in front of Timber at 415 W. Walnut. The restaurant is almost dead center in the first phase, which Brand knew and even chose when he opened in 2019.
“We knew that this street was going to be just an amazing, beautiful feat when it was completed,” he said. “We’re going to be very privileged to be able to have a business on this street when it’s done.”
Like Brand, Hunter said he’s convinced the project will bring what he called “huge benefits” to the neighborhood.
“It’s going to bring in some new construction and a lot of the buildings on West Walnut will be redone,” Hunter said. “But it’s going to take 10, 15, 20 years to get all that redone.”
For his part, Brand said he hopes it won’t take more than 10 or 15 weeks for the city to restore a semblance of normalcy to his area of the project.
“In recent weeks we’ve seen a little bit of a decline in business as people are getting worn out,” Brand said. “They know what they’re getting into when they come down the street.”
He said foot and bike traffic from regulars on the Tree Streets is helping pull the business through, and he said even now he’d describe Timber as “sustainable, even thriving” after pandemic-related adjustments to the model.
But he’s also seen similar redevelopment projects, like Nashville’s half-mile long 12 South neighborhood, “really incentivize a ton of development” with walkability, great signage and other beautification going along with infrastructure upgrades.
“I think you’ll see all kinds of new businesses pop up. A lot of buildings have been changing hands, a lot of deals are being made for people to get in on the ground floor of such a great opportunity.”
Brand and Hunter also applauded the city’s communication, which comes in the form of weekly emails letting people know what is ahead over the next seven days and where driving will be impacted.
McCulloch said he knows businesses have suffered.
“What we’re hoping is that in the end, when the thing’s all done that they thrive, which we expect them to,” he said. “We expect that in the end this will be, ‘you’re suffering for a little bit now, but later on it’s all going to be good.'”
For Brand, that would look like the kind of volume that downtown restaurants do, something he said Timber is “nowhere near” at this stage.
“That’s really what we are looking for is seeing that level of success,” he said.
Once all the bike lanes are in, trees planted and pocket parks established, Brand said it will feel almost like Timber’s grand opening after a history that’s combined COVID-19 restrictions with a massive city project.
“I don’t know what it will be like to have a business that exists on a street that’s thriving in a city where the pandemic isn’t ravaging us. So I’m very much looking forward to that day.”