Public meeting on Ped Mall improvement plan reveals some new features and some fixes for old problems

Rendering of a proposed update to the Iowa City Ped Mall. — image via the City of Iowa City

Some eye-catching new features for the Ped Mall were highlighted at the public meeting about Iowa City’s Pedestrian Mall Improvement Program on Friday. Plans call for an adjustable canopy for the stage area at the Sheraton, and a canopy to provide shade in Black Hawk Mini Park. Strings of lights will be hung overhead at both the Clinton and Linn Street entrances to create lighted gateways, and new lights will add color to the jets of water at the Weather Dance Fountain.

The meeting at the Sheraton provided an overview of the $6.5 million project, which is the next step in the Downtown and Pedestrian Mall Streetscape Plan approved by the city council in 2014. Construction on the Ped Mall is slated to begin in April 2018 and finish in November 2019.

Angie Coyier of Gēnus, the landscape architecture firm designing the project, gave a 15 minute presentation on the improvements to the approximately 50 people gathered in the Amos Dean Ballroom. In addition to the canopies and lights, Coyier discussed plans for new benches throughout the Ped Mall, as well as fixed tables and chairs near the library, and movable tables and chairs in Black Hawk Mini Park. A platform to accommodate a rotating series of art installations is also planned for the mini park.

Less noticeable upgrades will include new trash receptacles and power outlets for vendor carts. The plan also calls for two new water mains and improved drainage.

Following her presentation, Coyier was joined on stage by Iowa City Senior Civil Engineer Scott Sovers to answer questions from the audience. Instead of focusing on the planned new features, most of the questions were about an old problem: the uneven surface of the Ped Mall’s pavement that can occasionally cause difficulties for pedestrians.

According to Coyier, the uneven slope of the pavement and the random bricks jutting out of place are the result of problems with the pavement’s substratum. It’s made of a compact aggregate of gravel and other crushed materials, which has shifted and become uneven over the decades. It will be replaced by a concrete slab to create a more even surface and provide a more stable foundation.

The pavement bricks will also be changed. The existing clay bricks will be replaced with similar-looking ones made of cast concrete. The new bricks are supposed to be more resistant to wear and should provide good traction for pedestrians.

“So, they won’t be as slippery when it’s rained or there’s a heavy dew?” asked a skeptical member of the audience, who said he found it difficult to walk in the Ped Mall when the pavement is wet.

“That’s the intention,” Coyier replied.

But the planned changes don’t address all the concerns of people with limited mobility. Even though the Linn and Clinton Street entrances will get new curb ramps to improve accessibility, there will still be steps separating the west walkway from the center corridor.

There are also no plans to reconfigure the Ped Mall play area, although one member of the audience said it isn’t accessible to people who use wheelchairs and claimed it doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The longest question of the evening came from a woman who was concerned the new design “doesn’t sing.” She said it wasn’t innovative enough, and didn’t really express the uniqueness of Iowa City. The questioner name-checked cities in Sweden, Brazil and Japan that she said had more innovative pedestrian malls, but didn’t specify what qualities made those public spaces sing.

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“We are up against a fixed budget,” Sovers said, before inviting the woman to fill out a comment card with her suggestions. “We’d be happy to consider them. We haven’t finished the construction documents, so there is some flexibility yet.”

More information on the improvement plan is available at the city’s website.

The current schedule calls for one more public information session on the Ped Mall before construction plans are finalized.

“Stay tuned,” Coyier said. “We’ll be coming back to you in October with another design update.”

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