Hearing about the imminent changes to West Walnut Street is music  to Matthew Smith’s ears.

“I am super excited about the long-term effects for the city,” Smith said.

Smith and his wife Mary own Tri-Cities Behavioral Therapy at 321 W. Walnut St., which serves children with autism spectrum disorder. They moved to the spot about a year ago, and although Smith has some concerns about traffic issues cropping up over the course of the project, he doesn’t expect his business will be severely impacted.

He particularly appreciates efforts to slow traffic along the roadway and the new green space planned for the corridor.

“Progress is hard, and I hear some of us are in for some growing pains,” Smith said, “but I think the growing pains are going to make this city a much better place to learn, play, exist, live.”

Getting ready

With work on the West Walnut Street corridor expected to start in about a month, Johnson City leaders met with business owners and stakeholders on Thursday to provide an overview of the project and answer any lingering questions.

“This is going to take a lot of coordination,” said Johnson City Public Works Director Phil Pindzola. “It’s going to take a lot of patience on your part, our part, everybody’s part. But at the end of the day we think we’ve got a product that’s really going to facilitate some growth in the area.”

The two-year overhaul of the corridor will involve upgrading utilities and tearing up the existing streetscape, substituting it with a more pedestrian-friendly roadway. A bike lane will run up the corridor, and elevated intersections and slight curves in the road called chicanes will slow traffic speed.

During the project, Pindzola said, the city intends to always have a lane of traffic open, but there may be alternative ways to maintain access.

“We just want to make sure we’ve got accessibility to every business to minimize business disruption,” he said.

Pindzola expects the City Commission will approve bids for the project during their first meeting in June. He anticipates the price tag will be about $34 million.

The city is borrowing money and may need to implement a tax increase to help cover the front-end cost of the project, Pindzola said, but officials expect the additional dollars accrued through incoming developments on West Walnut Street will ultimately offset the cost.

Pindzola said the road’s existing water and sewer lines are more than 100 years old and need to be replaced. Additionally, the old streets need an inordinate amount of maintenance, and there are stormwater issues along the corridor.

Major upgrades

The project will be divided into four pieces, starting on Buffalo Street. Zone one will occur across the 300 and 400 blocks of West Walnut Street, zone two will cover the 500 and 600 blocks, zone three will be the 700 block and zone 4 will be the 800 block.

Pindzola stressed that communication will be a major priority for the city. As the project occurs, Johnson City will post bi-weekly updates on its website — www.johnsoncitytn.org/westwalnutplan — and send bi-weekly emails to people who opt-in.

The city will buy Harman Ice & Cold Storage at 724 W. Walnut St., demolish the building and build a new access road and a stormwater detention area similar to King Commons and Founders parks.

The project also involves running a median through the intersection of West Walnut Street and University Parkway, which will eliminate left-hand turns onto the roadway. Pindzola noted that the two traffic signals in that vicinity have caused numerous accidents over the years.

“We have no capacity at that intersection,” Pindzola told attendees. “You know it because you’ve experienced it.”

The city will remove the signal at West Walnut and University Parkway and install one farther up the road at Pine Street. The median on University Parkway will extend past West Maple Street to discourage motorists from traveling through the Tree Streets neighborhood.

Siblings Julie and Mike Knowles own property at 301 West Walnut St., putting it in the first zone of the project. It currently serves as office space.

“I think it’s going to be beautiful,” Julie Knowles said about the West Walnut overhaul, “and I think it’ll be nice to have it as a cohesive street instead of part manufacturing and part business.”

David Floyd covers Johnson City government, Johnson City schools and Ballad Health for the Johnson City Press. He grew up in East Tennessee and graduated from ETSU, where he was the executive editor of the school paper.

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