Apr 14 2008
By Robert DeWitt
With $4.1 million more in the city’s hands, $37 million in funding for Phase I of the downtown urban renewal project is complete, said Mayor Walt Maddox.
The project’s first phase includes the purchase and clearing of four city blocks, designing and building a small city park, and drainage improvements on 21st Avenue. Other phases include construction of a $12.5 million parking deck and intermodal facility and a $63 million federal building.
“There’s more happening now with public and private development than at any time in the history of the city of Tuscaloosa,” said City Council President Harrison Taylor. “It’ll be a downtown everybody will be proud of.”
The $4.1 million the city received last week from the Federal Highway Administration will be used to rework drainage on 21st Avenue between Seventh Street and University Boulevard, as well as for lighting, parking and streetscaping improvements on University Boulevard between 21st and 20th avenues.
The drainage improvements include replacing a large brick culvert built during the 19th century. It once carried most of downtown Tuscaloosa’s storm drainage.
“One of the most difficult parts of the downtown urban renewal project is the aging infrastructure below ground,” Maddox said. “You have water, sewer and drainage structures that are decades old. In most cases they were built before World War II.”
The old culvert has been particularly problematic and has caused some sinkholes on 21st Avenue.
“The drainage system itself is deteriorating,” Maddox said. “When part of that line collapses, the street collapses with it.”
In some places, the culvert is 25 feet deep. That makes for a large-scale construction project and some traffic interruptions.
“Everybody wants it all over with tomorrow,” Taylor said. “But with progress comes some inconveniences.”
It is too soon to know, but the city might have to put local money into the drainage project. Maddox said he didn’t think it would be more than $500,000 to $1 million. The cost will be well within the city’s grasp and worthwhile considering the value gained from the improvements, he said.
Construction began on the new intermodal facility at the corner of 23rd Avenue and Sixth Street about two weeks ago. Federal money will pay for 80 percent of the $12.5 million, while the city will pay 20 percent. It is scheduled for completion in 16 months.
The structure was staked off, and the contractor is preparing to dig the “geo-piers” that will support the foundation.
“It is a very heavy steel and concrete facility and needs a sturdy substructure,” Maddox said.
The intermodal facility will include parking for 445 parking spaces, office space for the Tuscaloosa Parking and Transit Authority, a police substation and retail space. It will not include a Greyhound bus terminal, as once hoped.
The city was unable to reach a lease agreement with Greyhound, Maddox said. The negotiations would have taken a long time and with the bid awarded, there wasn’t time to work out the agreement.
The retail space will overlook the park adjoining the intermodal facility, but the City Council still has to make some decisions with regard to the retail space, Maddox said.
“We know we want to do an RFP [request for proposals],” Maddox said. “The questions are, how do you structure an RFP? What does the council want to see in that space? We know it will be 10,000 square feet. Do you want two 5,000-square-foot spaces?”
The space will be left unfinished for the tenant to work with. The money generated from rent will maintain the facility.
The planned park next to the intermodal facility is still being designed. It will cover about a block and a half between the facility and 21st Avenue and include landscaping and some kind of water element such as a fountain or reflecting pool.
Congress has already appropriated $44 million for the new federal building and grounds, which will be bounded by University Boulevard, Seventh Street and 20th and 21st avenues. An architect has been selected and preliminary design work is moving forward.
However, the practice of earmarking appropriations has come under strong criticism in Congress. That’s created some concern over whether U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, Tuscaloosa’s chief benefactor, can secure enough money to complete the building.
“I believe the building will be built there,” Maddox said. “Its size and scope will depend on the amount of money actually appropriated by Congress.”
Shelby is actively seeking the remaining money for the building, said Laura Henderson, the senator’s spokesman.
“The senator plans to work within the current appropriations climate to secure the funds to complete the project,” she said.