Merchants have grown frustrated with the pace of renovations at Jackson Square, and on Wednesday a protest sign was posted. “Free Our Parking Lot!” said the sign, which has since been removed.
For now, the parking lot inside Jackson Square remains closed off behind construction fencing as work continues on a $1 million renovation mostly funded by a state grant awarded in 2012.
But merchants wonder why they can’t use the parking lot since it was used for the Lavender Festival on June 20.
Compounding their frustration is the closure of the lower parking lot at Blankenship Field. It’s one of two lots on the north side of Broadway Avenue and Jackson Square. Employees at nearby businesses who used to park in the Blankenship Field lot are now using the second lot, the one used by the Farmers Market, reducing the parking spaces available there, one merchant said.
The Blankenship Field work, which was approved by the Oak Ridge City Council in June, is also causing concern for the Farmers Market. The Farmer Market’s vendors set up in the second parking lot on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings, and they now don’t have parking available at either the Blankenship Field lot or inside the Jackson Square lot.
Leading up to the Lavender Festival in June, Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch regularly sought assurances that the parking lot inside Jackson Square would be available for the annual festival. It was, and most of the construction fencing was temporarily removed.
But the work there isn’t complete, so the fences have been put back up and the parking lot is again off-limits. Among the work that still has to be completed: paving, landscaping, and installing an interactive fountain.
Gooch said he shares the frustration of the merchants, and officials are looking into whether the parking lot can be opened on a limited basis while the fountain work is under way.
“Most of that is beyond our direct control, but we’re working on it,” the mayor said Friday.
Gooch, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson, and Acting City Engineer Roger Flynn discussed the project during a teleconference on Wednesday.
Gooch said there are multiple parties and multiple interests involved, and questions about opening the parking lot inside Jackson Square before work is completed raise legal issues and concerns about insurance coverage.
The second issue is the fountain, Gooch said. The parts have been ordered, but they haven’t arrived yet, he said.
Watson said the fountain will be assembled in place after the parts arrive, and it “may come out in about four weeks.”
In the meantime, the contractor, Rich Construction Inc. of Lenoir City, will prepare for the installation, Watson said. He said work continues on other portions of the project, including irrigation and electrical systems.
Watson said the Jackson Square parking lot has been configured, but that doesn’t mean the city can open it. Before it can open, the contractor has to release it, and the Tennessee Department of Transportation, City of Oak Ridge, and city engineer have to approve it, Watson said.
In the meantime, he said, the city renovated the parking lot directly north of Jackson Square, the one used by the Farmers Market, to help merchants and customers with parking.
With a second parking lot renovation started at Blankenship Field, the Oak Ridge Farmers Market has less parking available, and its board of directors has been given two options to consider. One would be to close Broadway from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturdays to let the farmers set up there. The second would be to temporarily move the Farmers Market to a city-owned lot on Tennessee Avenue, on the south side of Jackson Square.
There have some reported delays in the Jackson Square project, including unusual wintry weather in February and a change in the fountain vendor that caused Rich Construction to revise its construction plans. Workers had expected to start construction at the center of the square, where the fountain will be, but they’ve reversed course and worked on the perimeter first.
There have been other delays, including wet weather, keeping the project within budget, and working with the state, officials said.
“We’ve gone through some hurdles,” Watson said.
He said the construction schedule was changed around to ensure the Lavender Festival could be held at Jackson Square in June.
“We’re working as fast as we can, and we’ll complete it,” Watson said. “We have to be patient and encourage all the community to support our businesses.”
He said the contract calls for the work to be done by the end of August.
Oak Ridge Today was not able to reach Angel Rich Johnson, president of Rich Construction, for comment on Friday.
The work is reported to be the first major renovation at Jackson Square in 70 years. Even business owners who have been hurt by the temporary closure of the parking lot said Jackson Square will look good when the work is complete.
Officials and business owners said the project was ready to begin in December, but merchants didn’t want it to start in the middle of the holiday season so it was postponed until after January 1.
The Oak Ridge City Council awarded a $1 million contract for the project in October. It’s funded with help from a $741,609 Tennessee Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant awarded to the city in June 2012. The TDOT grant covers 80 percent of the work.
The work will include a landscaped pedestrian plaza with parking, the interactive fountain, stone pavers, curbing, asphalt paving, utilities, benches, sidewalks, and upgrades under the American with Disabilities Act. Construction work on the $1 million rebuild started in January.
The city’s share of the project has been estimated at $293,617. The project was announced in a press conference featuring Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam. Event photos recreated, to some extent, the famous “War Ends!” photo taken in Jackson Square at the end of World War II.
The renovation of the Blankenship Field parking lot was approved by the Oak Ridge City Council in a 5-1 vote on June 1. In that resolution, Council members agreed to cap the project at $275,000 using unspent traffic camera money and award the contract to Rogers Group of Oak Ridge.
It’s expected to be one part of a much larger, more expensive redo of the football field and Jack Armstrong Stadium.
The major concern raised at the June 1 City Council meeting was whether it made sense to renovate the parking lot before other interior construction work at the football field had been completed.
Why not wait until the construction work was finished, City Council member Trina Baughn asked.
“I think this is kind of backward,” she said. “This seems like the last thing you would do on a project.”
Spending $275,000 on a parking lot that could later be damaged by construction equipment seems wasteful, said Baughn, who cast the only “no” vote at that meeting. Baughn also questioned whether the parking lot’s condition really required a renovation.
Her concerns about paving the parking lot before other construction work was completed were echoed by former Oak Ridge City Council member Anne Garcia Garland and current Council member Ellen Smith, who still voted for the work. Gooch was absent from that meeting.
Council member Rick Chinn, who has been involved in the project to renovate Blankenship Field, said there is a group meeting and trying to raise funds. The renovations could be phased, he said. The first phase was the visitors bleachers, which were replaced last season.
The new parking lot could help bring the bleachers into compliance, Chinn said.
The next phase, possibly installing a turf field that could be used for movie nights and large concerts, is anticipated to start after this season, Chinn said.
“This parking lot really does help the momentum,” he said. “It is very important in the fundraising effort to have continued momentum.”
Oak Ridge Public Works Director Gary Cinder said the Blankenship Field parking lot work couldn’t start before June 22. It is expected to be done before the first home football game.
Cinder said the increased project cost is driven by the very compressed time schedule.
Chinn said the project had to be completed in a certain period of time.
“That’s just the way things are scheduled,” he said.
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