The Nicollet Mall overhaul may seem to be a never-ending mess, but it's on time and on budget.
Construction of the $50 million project is "on track for substantial completion" by year's end, said Don Elwood, Minneapolis director of transportation and planning, and is "tracking to stay on budget as of right now."
While drivers and pedestrians have seen barricades and bumps along the mall since July 2015, signs of progress are largely hidden beneath the pavement. Most of the work completed so far has been on utilities underground rather than street-level beautification. This year should bring more visible progress, as aboveground work starts moving at a faster clip. Workers will start planting trees in June and installing streetlights in July.
"We spent an entire summer disrupting the mall, and everything we have to show for it can't be seen," said Jonathan Weinhagen, president of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, whose office overlooks the mall. "We've had all of the pain of construction season without any of that aesthetic reward."
Business owners on the mall are less philosophical. Alain Lenne, the owner of La Belle Crepe, said he found out Monday that his side of the street will be closed for most of July and August. Customers must get to his restaurant through the Medical Arts Building, which they won't be able to do on weekends.
"In the summer, my weekends are when I make the most money, and now I'm going to lose eight weekends in the prime season," Lenne said. "The whole thing is a joke to me. I'm losing so much money."
Lenne, who serves crêpes and pho, said that to add insult to injury, he has to pay full price for his patio license, even though he won't be able to use a patio for much of the summer. On weeks when it will be open, he has to allow passersby to walk between his restaurant and his patio patrons.
"The whole thing is ridiculous," Lenne said.
Many moving pieces
The city and Meyer Contracting are working on a street heavily undergirded with utilities, and playing a game of Jenga with two miles of temporary pedestrian fences, single lanes of access for dump trucks, extensive tree irrigation, raised intersections, multiple colors of concrete, temporary traffic lights, and plywood bridges to bars and restaurants who badly need customers to be able to get to their front doors.
"I really have a three-dimensional project going on," Elwood said.
The city has also worked to make sure that businesses are disrupted as little as possible.
"Our schedule sometimes gets down to the exact hour — can you not do that work until after 2 p.m.," Elwood said.
Brad Schwichtenberg, general manager of the News Room restaurant, said the heavy utility work was explained to business owners, but only after it started.
He understands why it's necessary, and he thinks the city and contractor have done what they can to accommodate businesses on the mall. His side of the street will be closed in April, and he guesses his front door will be affected for only half a day, but he's looking forward to the return of heavy foot traffic on Nicollet.
"It's been going on for two years now, and I can't wait for it to be done," Schwichtenberg said. "It's brought business down for everyone."
The project is being funded mostly by a state grant of $21.5 million and a $25 million special assessment against property owners. The remaining $3.5 million comes from the city of Minneapolis.
Work hit a snag early on when the request for bids in 2015 yielded only one. The city had to go back and redesign the project to get more bidders. But since then, the project has been more or less on schedule.
And while warm winter days have passed without much work being done, there is no way the contractor could have planned for that, officials said, and mustering crews to work on short notice would have been impossible.
"There's a schedule and a plan, and they're adhering to it, and there are challenges in ramping up and down a workforce," Weinhagen said. Also, "a couple of sustained days of above average temperature doesn't make the ground any less frozen."