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Olean officials unveil plan for new North Union Street

OLEAN – What was once considered to be the widest street in the United States may soon receive a face-lift.

But not all Olean city residents are happy about the changes coming to North Union Street.

After months of study and focus groups, a preferred design was unveiled this week to residents and merchants in the city courtroom.

Project manager Jeffrey Lebsack, of Hatch Mott MacDonald, said the changes have been in the works for the last two years, but the job involves more than redesigning the street. Infrastructure needs to be repaired and replaced.

Thomas Windus, the city’s director of public works, said the average age of pipes under the city, especially the North Union Street area, is 100 years old. Problems came to a head two years ago when a major water main at the north end of the street ruptured.

“This sets us up for a game plan for the future,” Windus said.

The proposed design for the new North Union Street, after reconstruction of the underground utilities, will include a reduction from the current four lanes to two lanes, each 11 feet wide, with a two-foot buffer area between the travel lanes and a bicycle lane. Street parking would be transformed into diagonal, back-in parking in a 15-foot space.

The middle of the street would include a 16-foot predominantly green median.

The proposed plan would remove the cobra-style street lamps and replace them with “dark sky” lamps, providing a more traditional look. Streetlights would be removed from the intersection of State and Union streets on the southern end, and the intersection of Union and Main streets at the north end. The intersections would be managed through five roundabouts. All roundabouts would have grass centers with the exception of the one at North Union and Wayne streets.

While the plan is still in the design phase, construction could begin a year after funding is secured. No dollar amount has been determined at this point, but city administrators have applied for grants that would aid in construction of the route.

As is usual with major changes, some in the city are not happy with the plan, especially the idea of back-in parking, even on a roadway with reduced speeds.

“If an older person is backing in, you are asking for a bit of trouble,” resident George Carlson said.

Many questioned the ability of street beautification bringing jobs and business to the area. At least six people also mentioned that city residents should be able to vote on the project.

“This shouldn’t be decided upon by a small group of politicians,” city resident Tom Victor said. “This is something that needs to go in front of the people in a referendum. Let the people of the city decide what they want for their city.”

Plans will continue to shift and change as the project goes forward, according to Mayor Linda Witte.

Olean, in the eyes of many in attendance, still has the ability to be a strong, vibrant city.

“It is still a wonderful place,” said Timothy Finan, chief executive officer of Olean General Hospital. “But, it’s worn around the edges.”