ELKHART — A huge pit is coming to downtown Elkhart this summer, large enough to hold a million gallons of water.
This is no oversized swimming pool for lounging and taking in the sun, though.
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It'll accommodate a huge underground holding tank, an initiative of the Elkhart Public Works and Utilities Department mandated by the federal government. The aim is noble enough, to keep raw sewage — the stuff you flush down your toilets and wash down your kitchen sink — from entering the rivers here untreated.
Even so, the looming project, to start in July and last two years, is causing jitters among some in the downtown area. A city-owned parking lot off Waterfall Drive between Jackson Boulevard and Lexington Avenue will be dug up to make way for the tank, and some worry the loss of parking spots there will create mayhem in downtown Elkhart.
Eventually, the hole will be covered and the parking area, known as the Gause lot, will return. In the interim two years, though, it'll be harder to find a parking place, and the presence of heavy equipment, construction barriers and more may prompt some to steer clear of the city center, hampering commerce, some worry. Waterfall Drive will be closed between Jackson Boulevard and Lexington Avenue for the two years of the project and that could skew traffic patterns, increasing congestion elsewhere in the downtown area as motorists take alternative routes.
"I've seen these projects come and I've seen these projects go and this one really worries me," said Janice Hayden, owner of the Old Style Deli on Main Street in downtown Elkhart, not far from the planned construction spot.
She remembers, with dread, the upheaval prompted by the Streetscape project, a series of Main Street improvements in the late 2000s and early 2010s that hampered downtown traffic flow, raising the ire of downtown merchants. Shoppers "don't want to be inconvenienced for one second," said Hayden.
Steve Riikonen, trustee of the Elkhart Knights of Columbus, immediately adjacent to the parking lot to be dug up, is sketchy on project details, just now getting out to the public.
But he's worried.
The Knights of Columbus locale, at 112 E. Lexington Ave., regularly hosts charitable fundraisers and other events — Dyngus Day activities each spring, pancake feeds, wedding receptions — and those who attend typically park in the lot where the tank will be placed. If that lot is off limits during the two-year project, where will attendees leave their cars?
"Without a place to park, it's kind of hard to have events," Riikonen said.
'BLUNT THE IMPACT'
City officials, planning a public meeting in March to provide more information on the plans, know some are nervous and they're taking steps to minimize the negative repercussions of the project. Notably, two new parking lots will be opened around the downtown area to counter the loss of the lot off Waterfall Drive, according to Mike Machlan, the city engineer, one of them south of the Dairy Queen at 206 W. Jackson Blvd.
Moreover, the project is being timed and planned to minimize street closures and limit where construction equipment is stored.
Downtown Elkhart Inc., or DEI, a group that represents and promotes downtown interests, will be working hard to get the word out about the plans. The group plans to use social media to let the public know that commerce in the city center is going to continue and signage to let the public know where to park, among other efforts. Reps from SoMa, a downtown planning group, are seeking input on how the Waterfall Drive lot is now used to help craft alternatives to mitigate the impact when it closes.
"Look, we cannot shut the downtown," said Dan Boecher, the DEI executive director. City officials "know that, they're not going to do that... There's a real sensitivity on the city's part, trying to blunt the impact as much as possible."
On the bright side, Boecher doesn't see the plans having the same sort of impact as the Streetscape project. Most notably, the focus of the work is in a parking lot, with Waterfall Drive the most impacted street, not Main Street, the principle downtown arterial.
"It's not even in the same league as what we did six, seven years ago," he said.
Waterfall Drive, both he and Machlan said, doesn't typically experience heavy traffic flow, and Boecher doesn't think the closure of the roadway will require dramatic changes to the public's driving habits.