Revamped Coldwater giving drivers headaches

Steve Rubin travels Coldwater Road each time he goes to work in the Coldwater Crossing shopping center, and has a confession to make.

Even Rubin has gotten confused by the new traffic patterns caused by the recent Coldwater Road reconstruction.

“I've missed a turn lane,” Rubin, a manager at Hobby Lobby, said last week. “A lot of people (who shop here) are complaining about the way they set it up,” he said of the road's new design.

This weekend, with the Christmas shopping season in high gear, patrons and merchants along the stretch of Coldwater roughly from Glenbrook Square mall to the Interstate 69 exits north of Washington Center Road can breathe a sigh of relief – or mutter a few choice words under their breath.

Road work causing tie-ups along the busy stretch was finished mostly as promised, with only an occasional worker and truck remaining in the area by the first week in December, said Shan Gunawardena, Fort Wayne's newly named director of public works.

But confusion and frustration lingers, said Gunawardena, formerly city engineer.

Motorists now need to negotiate curb-lined turn lanes, concrete island medians, and new traffic light patterns. And merchants worry that the median barriers might cause customers on the wrong side of the street to pass them by.

“With all these changes, we're trying to create changes in driver behavior. It takes awhile for that to happen because most drivers drive by instinct and not by sight,” Gunawardena said. “People will get used to it, but it will take time.”

Curb appeal

He said the changes, when finished next spring with permanent striping and landscaping, will improve Coldwater, which he called an important  “gateway” to Fort Wayne.

Drivers will be kept from last-minute lane changes and sudden turns and there will be a safer midpoint where pedestrians can pause between crossing northbound and southbound lanes of traffic, Gunawardena said. 

Staggered lanes make for better visibility at intersections, and the corridor will be more aesthetically pleasing, with more than 70 trees and grass and shrub plantings, he added.

“It was very drab and uninspiring. We're trying to give it some curb appeal,” Gunawardena said.

“If you were just designing for vehicular traffic and trucks, OK, but they're not the only people we have to serve anymore,” he added, pointing out there were 126 accidents in the last year just at the two intersections between Coliseum Boulevard and Washington Center Road. 

“These are primarily because of open (turning) access,” Gunawardena said. The new design forces drivers to commit to a turn well ahead of time – or travel beyond their destination and turn around, he said.

But those curbs aren't inspiring motorists like Kathy Crick, 70, who lives on the north side of Fort Wayne and was shopping along the strip for a Christmas present for her daughter Wednesday.

“I avoid it when I can,” she said of the road. “I think it's ridiculous. Can you imagine what will happen with all those curbs when it's snowing and it gets icy?”

Making a quick trip to Target, IPFW music student Chris Karkosky, 21, also has been avoiding the stretch.

“Mainly because of all the construction,” he said. “And I've heard a lot of people are having trouble avoiding the medians and I've wanted to avoid it till it becomes more familiar.”

Karkosky said he uses North Clinton Street and Lima Road to avoid Coldwater.

Social media in recent months have buzzed with people posting photos of vehicles straddling the narrow medians – some with their triangular entry ends painted bright yellow.

Other photos show cars with crumpled doors or fenders after being hit trying to make a left turn in areas without a barrier.

Affecting sales

Merchants give the design mixed reviews.

“Basically our biggest statement is it's certainly been a roadblock for us (for sales) at our Coldwater location,” said Jamie Schuler, lead public relations staff person for DeBrand's Fine Chocolates, with a store at 5608 Coldwater Road.

“Now that it's finished, we're looking forward to our customers returning.”

The holiday season is one of the chocolatier's busiest, she said. But, because the store's wares tend to be purchased even late into the Christmas-shopping home stretch, she thinks the bottom line won't be affected too much.

Nick Dellinger, in sales at Brateman's, a work wear and uniform store, said he doesn't expect that business will suffer because much of it is done through large municipal contracts and online.

But Christmastime does have a larger proportion of off-the-street business, he said, as gifts of warm clothing are popular for men and women who work outdoors or enjoy wintertime sports.

“As far as our walk-in business, people know we're here, and they'll find us,” he said, pointing out the store has been on Coldwater Road for 30 years. “But a lot of people, especially older people, don't like the heavy traffic.”

Several area businesses have expressed concern about the road design, he said, with one business that sells printer ink promising house calls this summer. Another business is advertising sale prices on appliances to reward customers for their patience.

One expressed concern is that left-turn lanes aren't long enough, and traffic already is backing up into the lane normally used by through traffic.

“There's nowhere for that traffic to spill over,” Dellinger said, adding: “What are they going to do when snow starts to pile up? It's like a Florida or West Coast design.”

Gunawardena has an answer to that concern – snow will be put in the spaces between northbound and southbound traffic, and smaller trucks will likely be used in turn lanes and at least some snow will be carted away.

Greg Malone, executive vice president of Cincinnati-based Casto, which owns Coldwater Crossing, said merchants there haven't reported big drop-offs in business. He said customers have learned to use an alternative access point from Washington Center Road.

Recent storefront tear-downs at that the center weren't prompted by businesses losing money from road construction traffic disruption, he said, noting the major demolished store had been vacant for years.

“We're just trying to give ourselves more options and more flexibility,” Malone said. “Having improved infrastructure is only going to help.

“That whole node there is such a regional node and there's such a concentration of businesses there that improving the (street) infrastructure to get (people) there is a positive.”

Maribel Johnson, 41, of Fort Wayne was leaving the Coldwater Crossing Walmart on Wednesday with a gift for herself – a KitchenAid hand mixer for making cookies.

Johnson said the road construction hasn't kept her away. But she has tended to schedule her trips there for “when it's not busy,” which often means avoiding weekend traffic.

Jani Martin, who picked up diapers at the Walmart, said the new road hasn't affected her Christmas shopping. “I do it online,” said the 30-year-old Fort Wayne resident, who describes herself as a “social seller” on the Internet.

“Out here, it's too cold.”

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