Monroe Street businesses cheer end of construction

November 22, 2018

By 4 p.m. Wednesday, after 10 months of construction and hassles for residents, commuters, pedestrians and businesses, Monroe Street in Madison will fully reopen to two-way traffic.

The end of the $21 million project, which replaced aging and crumbling infrastructure — some dating to the early 1900s — is bringing a sigh of relief after five businesses closed amid reconstruction. It also heralds a joyous rebirth for a thoroughfare renowned for its assortment of locally owned restaurants and shops and as a gateway to historic Camp Randall.

“It’s really delightful to see that it’s coming to fruition,” said Carol “Orange” Schroeder, owner of Orange Tree Imports, 1721 Monroe St., and president of the Monroe Street Merchants Association. “It’s certainly an exciting time for us.”

But hardships have been real.

Three established businesses closed and don’t appear to be reopening, and two others opened and closed during the project, Schroeder said.

Leah Kessel, who has operated Calabash Gifts, 2608 Monroe St., for about 25 years, said the partial street closure between Camp Randall and Odana Road and loss of parking has been “dreadful.”

“In June and July, we hardly sold anything at all,” she said. “They needed to do what they did, but it affected us profoundly. It’s been scary.”

David Hoffert, president of the Dudgeon-Monroe Neighborhood Association, said residents understood the need to replace a deteriorated street and, after challenges caused by heavy rain in the late summer, are pleased the project is over in a single construction season.

The reconstruction of a street that usually handles 13,000 to 20,000 vehicles a day forced traffic into the neighborhood’s narrow side streets, resulting in complaints about speeding, cars being sideswiped and difficulty simply getting from one place to another, Hoffert said.

The city had initially proposed a two-year project with two-way traffic, but merchants sought to shorten the timeline to a single spring, summer and fall. However, that meant reducing traffic to a single, inbound lane.

“Everybody understood the need for it,” Hoffert said. “(But) to actually have it happen on time is pretty amazing.”

The contractor, Speedway Sand & Gravel, is winning praise for managing multiple challenges and completing the project on schedule. Schroeder shared a story about a Speedway crew member carrying a shop owner on his back to get through mud caused by rains, and Kessel said the contractor made special access to her store for her developmentally disabled daughter.

The main focus of the project was to replace the basic infrastructure of the street, which had pavement in very poor condition that was rated a 3 out of 10. The city prefers to keep arterial roads at a 6 or higher, said James Wolfe, an engineer with the city Engineering Division.

Meanwhile, sewer and water mains were both undersized and well beyond their expected service life, with sections of each installed as early as 1911, Wolfe said. The storm sewer was also aging, and areas of Monroe Street did not drain well, so a new storm sewer was installed in some locations. Street lighting and traffic signals were also updated, he said.

Also, the neighborhood had identified improvement to pedestrian safety as a primary objective, so the city added elements to improve pedestrian crossings, Wolfe said. And there were improvements made to the public spaces at the triangular plaza near Regent Street and the entrance to Wingra Park that gave opportunities for public art, he said.

Overall, the project is finishing on time and within budget, Wolfe said.

Knowing the challenges that lay ahead, the city worked with residents and business owners for a year before construction began in February, Wolfe said.

If the project had been located in almost any other area of the city, the road likely would have been closed to traffic due to the amount of underground work needed, he said. But knowing that wasn’t an option, staff worked so a single travel lane would be open throughout construction. There were also stipulations that pedestrian access had to be maintained on one side of the street and to businesses from at least one end of each block, he said.

The city provided the merchants association with a $20,000 grant, which was used to hire a part-time public relations professional to promote the corridor. Other business districts gave support.

In a small move that symbolized the self-described “survive and thrive” attitude of the neighborhood and merchants, 3 Sheeps Brewing of Sheboygan created a special beer called One Way IPA that’s been served on tap at Brasserie V, the Belgian-themed brew haven at 1923 Monroe St., and other establishments.

To commemorate the reopening, 3 Sheeps is making another brew — Two Way IPA.

Ann Culligan, owner of Infusion Chocolates, moved her decade-old business from Hilldale to 2503 Monroe St. in June 2017, attracted to a larger space and the Dudgeon-Monroe neighborhood.

“We had endured construction at Hilldale,” she said. “We kind of jumped from the frying pan into the fire.”

The business was affected by the reconstruction project, particularly sidewalk replacement, but survived through customer loyalty and promotions like a road construction special, she said.

Neighborhood support and customer loyalty helped sustain many businesses, Schroeder said.

Barbara Merz and Selma Van Eyck, both of Shorewood Hills, are longtime patrons of the street and came even more often during the construction project.

“It’s been a hassle but we’ve done it,” Merz said while at Brasserie V Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a lovely street, a lovely walking and shopping street.”

The merchant’s association will celebrate the reopening at this year’s Holiday Glow on Monroe from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Dec. 1.

“Overall, this project went about as well as could be expected, and we owe that to the hard work of Speedway’s crews and our city construction inspectors,” Wolfe said. “We also appreciate all of the patience and understanding from the neighborhood and business community.”

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