Central Avenue scheduled for facelift

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By Arin McKenna


Central Avenue’s last streetscape project was in 1996. Over the course of the last 18 years, the concrete has started to crumble, the planters are looking a little tawdry and the light poles are starting to rust. 

Plans are underway to refurbish Los Alamos’ main street. Engineering Division Manager/County Engineer/Traffic Engineer Kyle Zimmerman presented some options for the Central Avenue Improvements Project at the Transportation Board’s February meeting. 

County staff has also met with Main Street Futures and the business community to discuss the improvements.

The public will have its chance to weigh in at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at Fuller Lodge. 

Much of the work is basic: improving drainage, milling and repaving, repairing concrete and upgrading handicap ramps to meet current Public Right-of-Way Access Guidelines. 

The project has also been awarded a $70,000 Main Street grant for street furniture and lighting. 

The most significant aspect of the $1,895,000 project is a potential redesign of Oppenheimer Avenue. 

Oppenheimer’s five-lane design was originally part of a plan to create a connecting route between North Mesa and Los Alamos National Laboratory. With Mesa Public Library placement in the right-of-way, that plan is now defunct. 

The county has received many complaints about the safety of the Oppenheimer/Central intersection, mainly from pedestrians.

Camp, Dresser and McGee were hired to design two alternatives. Both alternatives would narrow the avenue and make the intersection safer for pedestrians. 

Alternative A places bump-outs (curb extensions) at both ends of Oppenheimer and on Central to slow traffic and narrow the distance pedestrians have to cross. 

The downside is that the Central Avenue bicycle lane would end at the bump-out. Eastbound cyclists would have to merge with vehicular traffic on an uphill climb. 

Board member Khalil Spencer, an avid cyclist, spoke against that option. 

“Not only are bicyclists not going to like it, but what I’ve seen when I’ve had to use the travel lane climbing there during the winter when there’s ice in the bike lane is people are passing me over the double line and playing chicken,” Spencer said. “So it’s not so much a matter of if I like it. It’s a matter of whether other people are encouraging themselves to do unsafe behavior.”

Board Chair Richard Dunn suggested putting bump-outs on the north side of Central to shorten the distance for pedestrians without impeding cyclists.

Spencer also cautioned against another aspect of alternative A: converting the outer lanes on Oppenheimer to parallel parking and running a bike lane alongside it.

“Typically you want to keep bicycles at least about five feet away from parked cars to avoid clipping a door with a handlebar, so that really restricts the width of the bike lane or the travel lane in a narrow situation,” Spencer said.

The cost estimate for alternative A is $1,310,000.

Alternative B maintains many of the alternative A features, but a roundabout would replace bump-outs at the Central/Oppenheimer intersection. Cyclist could merge with traffic in the roundabout or use ramps to exit onto sidewalks and walk their bikes around the intersection. 

According to Zimmerman, that option has two obstacles: the $1.4 million price tag and the steep grade. 

“We slope off pretty drastically here and roundabouts don’t like to be tilted,” Zimmerman said. 

The county would also have to acquire land from the Reel Deal Movie Theater.

County staff also prepared three options for consideration. 

Option A —the low-end option — does not change either Central or Oppenheimer. The project would focus on basic street maintenance and repairs, as well as upgrades to handicap ramps.  

Option B would not narrow Central Avenue at Oppenheimer, but would add a bump-out and parallel parking on the west side of Oppenheimer and a pedestrian island at Central, narrowing the street to three lanes.

Option C adds bump-outs and parallel parking on both sides of Oppenheimer, with the pedestrian island in the center, narrowing it to two lanes at the intersection. Central remains unchanged.

Option C also moves two pedestrian crossings in the downtown area. The post office crossing would be moved to the corner of Main Street and Central, and the crossing at CB Fox Department Store would be moved to intersect with the Central Park Square parking and the covered sidewalk on the north side of the street. Business owners suggested the changes.

The redesign will have some common features regardless of which plan is adopted, including increasing on-street parking and replacing striped crosswalks with concrete crosswalks.

The finish on the light poles will be refurbished using the Main Street grant money. Staff is also getting an estimate on changing the pedestrian light fixtures to match the streetlight fixtures, provided the increased illumination does not exceed the county’s strict street lighting code. 

Drainage improvements along Central will include channeling runoff away from Ashley Pond Park.

The bus stop near Starbucks would be moved back to the corner of 20th Street. That places it closer to the new teen center location and creates better sightlines for vehicles turning from 20th when no bus is there. On street parking makes it difficult to see traffic on Central Avenue. 

Crews will remove stamped concrete along Central and replace it with brick pavers between the road and the sidewalk. Central Park Square utilizes the brick pavers and reports they hold up well. When bricks begin to deteriorate, they can be replaced one at a time instead of having to jackhammer out an entire segment of concrete.

“Our goal is to get a six-foot wide pedestrian path that runs up through here, and then we’ll have this bricked area that comes along through here, with trees interspersed. And that’s where your lighting and street furniture is going to go,” Zimmerman said. “So you’ll easily be able to walk through here without having to run the gamut through the planters and the seating as we’ve got right now.”

An irrigation system will also be laid out to provide water to the hanging planters along Central.

The project will end at 15th Street in order to provide a detour during road construction on Trinity Avenue this summer, when county crews will be laying storm drain between Knecht Street and DP Road and the New Mexico Department of Transportation will be milling and paving.

Staff will return to the next Transportation Board meeting on March 6 after incorporating feedback from the public meeting. They hope to present a design for council’s approval by May 6.