Widening River Road, paving over memories - The Explorer: Import

Widening River Road, paving over memories

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Posted: Friday, November 18, 2005 12:00 am | Updated: 7:50 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

Erin Schmidt, ESchmidt@ExplorerNews.com

Nov. 16, 2006 - Jane Nelson and her husband Wayne moved into a house on River Road in 1971. She can still remember the snorting sound her neighbor's piglets made as the cars stopped to let the animals move across the quiet country road.

Today, Nelson looks out her front door and sees bulldozers, earthmovers and caution signs. Her little River Road is changing and there is nothing she can do about it.

"We know you can't stand in the way of progress," Nelson said. "But this was a lovely rural area."

River Road has become a major arterial roadway for Pima County motorists traveling west or east. River Road extends east from Thornydale Road to Sabino Canyon Road.

An estimated 36,000 motorists drive the widening roadway daily, and the number is expected to increase as Tucson and surrounding Pima County become more densely populated, said Pat Buckley, project manager for the River Bend Roadway Project.

To lessen the sharp 90-degree curves and increase the capacity of River Road, the county spent years researching and evaluating the best way to increase the road's vehicle capacity, while still retaining a certain amount of its historic and rural charm, Buckley said.

The improvements were split into two different projects, totaling $18 million in improvements. On River Road, from Campbell Avenue to Alvernon Way, the road is being aligned and widened from east of Campbell Avenue to the extension of Alvernon Way, east of Dodge Boulevard. The now two-lane road will be increased to two-lanes in each direction, with an added left turning lane. Paved shoulders, storm drains and landscaping will finish out the improvements.

Construction on the roadway began in May and will continue until the spring of 2007, Buckley said.

Nelson didn't think her little River Road would ever become what it is today, she said.

"We anticipated more traffic," she said, but added that she never imagined it would come to this.

After her husband Wayne died, Nelson now lives alone. Sitting on three acres, her home is filled with memories and possessions of a simpler time. A time when horses and children could run side by side along the winding turns of River Road.

"It's gone. Gone forever," she said.

Her husband always wanted to live on a ranch, and when the Nelsons found the house on River Road, a mile from Dodge Boulevard, they instantly knew it was home.

Years were spent raising children, tending to horses, chickens, goats and pigs.

To give the home more privacy, Wayne planted more than 20 evergreen trees in front of the Nelson's home.

When the county announced the plans to improve River Road, Nelson was shocked. Her trees would be removed.

"Without these trees, I'd be right on the road," Nelson said.

Proximity to the road was a concern for Nelson, but mostly she didn't want the trees she had watched grow, the trees her husband had planted, destroyed.

So she acted. She went to countless county meetings and spoke out against losing her trees, ripping the memories out along with the growing roots.

Buckley remembers Nelson and her story very well. He personally went back to the drawing board and restructured the roadway that would affect Nelson. Her trees were saved.

And she was elated.

"I am going to be less affected by the widening of River Road then most of my neighbors," she said, not sure if that is something to be proud of.

The county did need to purchase land from local residents in order to complete the widening and slated projects. Under eminent domain the county purchased five different areas, Buckley said, with six condemnation lands purchased and already accounted for.

Ten to 15 feet of a resident's property was the most seized by the county, from homeowners who were not selling the whole lot, Buckley said.

"We worked closely with a lot of people," Buckley said.

In 2000, a 15-member citizens advisory committee was formed to view plans and make comments on the county's proposal for River Road improvements.

Carmen Christy was the head of the committee and made sure the local residents voices were heard.

"I intend to stay here (in her River Road home) as long as I can," she said. "I thought this is one thing I can do for my community."

Christy has lived on River Road for 10 years, but remembers visiting the horse farms and pecan groves as a child.

"I have had really good memories," she said. And she wanted to make sure the improvements wouldn't take away the feel of the historic area.

For more than 25 years, the county has talked about improving the roadway, but nothing was ever done, Christy said. This time, the residents knew the county was serious and things were definitely going to change.

"We realized this time that it's going to come," she said. "It really was here."

The committee and the county used a topographical map to come up with the best and least intrusive way to improve River Road.

Twenty-seven different plans were created, Christy said, and finally it was whittled down to one, the improvements that are in the works now, she said.

"The county seriously looked at all 27 different ways," she said. "They were serious about this."

She remembers telling the county officials, "You guys are going to build us a wonderful road, then you're going to move away and you're going to do other projects and you aren't going to be on it every single day of your life," she said. "I stuck with it, because I'm going to live here."

No matter how closely the county worked with residents and business owners, the road will never be the same.

"We have a very strong sense of history here," she said. But, "No, its not ever going to be the same again. It's gone."

River Road is rich in history. In the mid-1800s, Mormons settled in the area near the Rillito and Dodge Boulevard. The area is on the National Register of Historic Places.

To account for the rich history, certain rules must apply when making any improvements, Christy said.

No high retention walls can be built and the integrity of the historic area must be kept intact.

Barbara Grygutis worked with the county to assure the bridge being built over the Rillito River would have an artistic feel and still be true to the rural history of River Road.

Grygutis is a professional artist who specializes in public art instillations. She is currently working on 14 other projects throughout the United States.

She wanted to get involved with the River Road improvement project to offer the community outside artwork.

"I live here," she said. "I do a lot of projects all over the country. It's always nice to work in your home town," she said.

An art treatment will adorn the bridge's railings, with some lighting at night, she said.

She worked on structuring the columns and the bridge itself to not look like a standard bridge, but to have more character.

"It's an enhancement of the built environment," she said. "It brings in another dimension for people to look at."

Being able to work on a structure that will be in her community for centuries is what motivates her inner artist, she said.

"It's like an outdoor gallery," she said. "It's building on the cultural legacy of the community."

The county has worked with local business owners to ensure the least amount of revenue disturbance during the construction phase, Buckley said.

Jan Westenborg owns Green Things, 3235 E. Allen Road, and has found customers frequently comment on the construction and debris caused by the widening of River Road.

Green Things has the largest retail inventory of houseplants in Southern Arizona, and thrives on repeat customers and accessibility. If people can't get to the business, Westenborg makes no money.

But so far, her business has not been affected, she said. Customers keep coming and the slow-moving traffic isn't keeping them away, she said.

Green Things is about a half-mile west of Dodge Boulevard and hidden off the dirt road, she said. A large sign reading "Still open during construction," alerts many customers to the businesses situation, she said.

"They've just been great," she said about the county and its willingness to provide signage during the construction. "It's been a challenge."

The cost of the Campbell Avenue to Alvernon Way portion of improvements is slated for $13.5 million, with an additional $3 million in Urban Area Highway User Revenue Funds.

Alvernon Way from River Road to Fort Lowell Road also will see $6 million worth of improvements.

Alvernon Way will be extended north and west across the Rillito River to connect River Road in the vicinity of Dodge Boulevard. Two lanes will be constructed from Fort Lowell Road to the Rillito River in each direction, with a left turning lane added.

South of the Rillito River on River Road, the roadway will be a four-lane cross-section with a raised median, paved shoulders, curbs and storm drains. Landscaping and pedestrian pathways will complete the improvements.

The new additions will alleviate congestion on Dodge and increase safety in the area, according to the county.

Bond funds will pay for the improvements.

Ken Light, president and chief executive officer for the Tucson Jewish Community Center anticipates a possible accessibility problem for the JCC when the Dodge Boulevard construction begins.

The JCC's main entrance is on Dodge Boulevard. The project cannot begin until the main work on River Road is completed. Light estimates the work will be held off until next spring, he said.

Even though construction is underway on the main arterial of River Road, the JCC has not seen a drop in community interest in the center.

"We have not felt a huge negative impact," he said.

Light was also a member of the citizens advisory committee and was able to share his concerns and suggestions on the River Road improvement project.

Even with the dust, dirt and construction noise felt daily, Light said the improvements will good for the JCC, in the long run.

Motorists will be able to get to the JCC more efficiently, with less of a hassle and that is a benefit to the center, he said.

In addition to the roadway improvement projects on River Road, the Brandi Fenton Memorial Park will be constructed at the northwest corner of Dodge Boulevard and the new River-Alvernon extension.

The park is in honor of Brandi Fenton, who died in an automobile accident in March 2003 in the Catalina Foothills.

The park will rest on 57-acreas and cost an estimated $6 million. Half of that was allocated to the park from the May 2004 bond elections, with another $800,000 received from the Binghamton Historic Rehabilitation bonds.

The rest will come from fundraising efforts from the Fenton family.

The park will include an equestrian area, three soccer fields, a children's splash park and dog runs. It will be completed by November 2006.

Until River Road is widened, the bridge is constructed and the memorial park is completed, River Road will be a wash of construction signs, traffic congestion and bulldozers.

And for Christy, nothing will ever be the same.

"Within the next 20 years this will no longer be River Road," she said. "This isn't the same community."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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