No one likes road construction, and there was not a business in downtown Birmingham, ours included, that was not dreading the upcoming reconstruction of Old Woodward between Willits and Brown, which had been scheduled for several years to take place this year, followed in 2019 with the complete reconstruction of Maple between Maple and Woodward. A couple of years later, from Brown south, S. Old Woodward will finish its reconstruction down to approximately Lincoln.
The reason these roads are being completely reconstructed is that these areas have some of the oldest water and sewer lines in Birmingham, as well as a streetscape that is on a different grade than the road. Much of this current infrastructure was installed in the 1940s and has exceeded its useful life – with some sewers dating to the 1890s.
Beginning in 2013, the city of Birmingham began to address the aging infrastructure in the core of the central business district – also known as the downtown area – with portions of Pierce Street from Maple to Merrill and Merrill Street from Pierce to Old Woodward undergoing a complete rebuilding. In 2016, Hamilton Avenue was reconstructed from Old Woodward to Woodward Avenue. These projects included new water lines, sewer lines, new lighting and streetscaping, the addition of ADA-compliant parking and the repaving of roads.
It appeared the city was being proactive in tackling the most major and significant engineering and road construction issues it had ever faced, at least in its modern era. And then it stalled.
The reconstruction of Old Woodward was slated to begin in March 2017, lasting approximately five months. Businesses made preparations, whether it was retailers socking away money in anticipation of a downturn in business, or the Birmingham Shopping District planning promotions, events to encourage shoppers to visit, and developing locations for free valet parking to ease the burden on those coming into downtown Birmingham during the construction period.
First, in January, came word from engineer Paul O’Meara that the construction had been postponed until May. Retailers, restaurateurs and leasing agents were concerned that construction would extend into the busy fall shopping period – and then word came that it would likely begin in July, lasting through fall and into the Christmas shopping season, until finally, it was cancelled for this construction season in late April after construction bids came back double and triple the original city estimates.
The reconstruction of Old Woodward is now estimated to begin in spring of 2018, with the work on Maple pushed back until 2020, and the remainder of S. Old Woodward pushed pack until 2022.
The reality is, costs were only one reason the Old Woodward construction became a debacle – construction bids didn’t go out until early April for a project that was slated to begin in March, and only two contractors chose to return bids, one for $6.8 million, the other for $10 million, for a project the city had budgeted at $3.3 million. Both city departments and the city commission dragged out the design process, leaving the city in an untenable position, with the commission not approving designs until February. The city should have held extra meetings to have resolved their issues, with bids out in the proper planning time last fall.
The city must make the necessary redesigns now, rapidly, in order to get bids in by this September so the work can begin next March.