Mississippi Drive Corridor design honored with presentation of Urban Design Award from Iowa APA

Reconnecting Muscatine has been and continues to be an ambitious project by the City of Muscatine to reimage and reconstruct vehicular and pedestrian pathways that enhance the connection between the downtown area and the Mississippi River.

The work of the City of Muscatine and the design team at Bolton & Menk, Inc., on this multi-phased project was recognized in October 2020 when the City of Muscatine and Bolton & Menk, Inc., were named the recipients of the Urban Design Award from the Iowa Chapter of the American Planning Association (APA).

The vision began with a thought to transform a riverfront filled with old buildings, grain bins, and a switchyard into a park that the citizens of Muscatine could be proud of and visitors would want to make a destination. Out of that came the realization of the need for a strong connection between the riverfront and Downtown Muscatine.

The vision expanded with the realization that the park would attract people to the area and that would ignite investment into the downtown district. But to get from the park to downtown, or from downtown to the park, people needed a safe connection … a safer, more pedestrian friendly Mississippi Drive.

The vision of a connected Riverside Park-Mississippi Drive-Downtown Muscatine was created in the 1980s and has been enhanced since then with public and private input along with public and private funding.  The development of Riverside Park with free parking (542 spaces), plenty of green space for people to enjoy, and other amenities was the initial project. For several reasons that free parking was not being utilized including people having to walk to the downtown area for work, shopping, or dining, and for the many safety concerns to pedestrians as they attempted to cross Mississippi Drive.

As part of a phased reconstruction strategy for Downtown Muscatine, the City reimagined 1.6 miles of Mississippi Drive, developed plans for 2.1 miles of Grandview Avenue, began the reconstruction of 2nd Street through the downtown district, and completed an impressive roundabout at the intersection of Mulberry Avenue and 2nd Street.

In their project summary, Bolton & Menk, Inc., noted that Muscatine has a rich cultural and ethnic diversity rooted in industrial beginnings that shaped the city’s growth along the Mississippi River. Front Street, which was renamed Mississippi Drive in the early 1970s, was once a bustling boat and rail yard turned truck route that divided downtown Muscatine from the riverfront.

The riverfront was transformed into a regional amenity as the city evolved offering recreational opportunities along with public open space. However, the riverfront suffered from increasing vehicular traffic and the lack of connectivity to downtown. Accessibility challenges, dangerous railroad crossings, and aging infrastructure historically plagued the 1.6 mile corridor.

The reconnecting of the downtown district to the riverfront revolved around several key principles including: the need for the infrastructure to encourage private investment; solving fundamental planning, circulation, and public safety issues that have plagued the downtown and riverfront corridor for decades; redefining the public perception of how the Mississippi Drive and Grandview Avenue corridors should function while putting more emphasis on establishing multimodal corridors; using technically sound design and detailing practices that are mindful of flood potential and other adverse effects on the built environment; incorporating beautification and complete streets design principles with every project; and, engaging the public often, educating them on the “big ideas”, and building consensus throughout the process.

Through a series of public meetings, the project team was able to gather public input and support for some monumental changes to Mississippi Drive.

By evaluating the corridor’s traffic needs, understanding the barriers facing pedestrians, and identifying the impacts from the adjacent railroad, a concept emerged that featured a 4-to-3 conversion of Mississippi Drive. Incorporated into the concept was Complete Streets principles that would improve safety and create a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere to reinvigorate Muscatine’s riverfront.

The innovations contained in this project included an agreement between the city and Canadian Pacific Railroad to implement a quiet zone through Downtown Muscatine, and creating safer vehicular and pedestrian rail crossings. Other significant changes in the corridor project included back-in angled parking, landscaped medians, and a roundabout at the gateway to downtown.

Each of the Muscatine riverfront projects is unique but still work together to establish a cohesive look and feel while strengthening the community’s connection to the river. The roundabout created a vibrant entryway and solved key circulation issues. The Mississippi Drive corridor calmed traffic and re-established the riverfront connection. The Grandview Avenue corridor project will solve much needed infrastructure and access management problems that have stalled business development. The 2nd Street Project will inspire the creation of an even more vibrant retail, commercial, and housing market.

Each of these projects bring a creativeness to overcome specific challenges, and all in a combined effort for the betterment of the community.

The Mississippi Drive project has become a showcase corridor for the city and for the region. The re-imagined corridor will continue to have a positive influence on the economic vitality of Muscatine’s downtown area while influencing the expectation for future public improvements.

The Mulberry Roundabout project has proven that semi-trucks and other vehicles can safely navigate a roundabout and speed up the transition from one direction to another. The 2nd Street Project will improve the walkability of the six-block downtown area and create areas where people can congregate while shopping the unique stores and restaurants when it is complete in 2021. The Grandview Avenue Project that will use the principles of the Mississippi Drive Corridor Project will create a friendlier atmosphere for business growth while also creating an area that is more conducive to pedestrians and pedestrian safety.

The project team did not come to the final design for these projects entirely on their own. The City of Muscatine and Bolton & Menk, Inc., hosted numerous meetings with local businesses, freight truck drivers, public safety officials, and other key stakeholders including various members of the general public to gain a better understanding of the community needs and how the proposed changes would affect businesses, residents, and visitors. These meetings assured that specific needs were addressed during design and implementation while minimizing the disruption caused by the construction.

This engagement process helped community members gain a better understanding of the project’s technical aspects. Based on the technical analysis and public input the project was “right sized” for existing and future vehicular traffic while emphasizing safety and connectivity for pedestrians.

The design developed a distinct corridor identity that could be replicated in future phases of community redevelopment and reconnected the riverfront to downtown.

In addition to the infrastructure improvements that earned the City and Bolton & Menk, Inc., the award, another phase in gaining momentum that will not only further enhance the connection between the downtown and the riverfront, but also future enhance the connection between the riverfront and the rest of the community.

Segments of the Riverfront Park Master Plan are in the early stages of development. While it is still too early for details of these efforts to be released, it is an exciting time and something to look forward to by Muscatine residents and visitors.

The Mississippi Drive Corridor Reconstruction Project began in May 2017 and wrapped up in November 2018. The roundabout was a separate project and was constructed January thru July of 2020. The Mississippi Drive Corridor Reconstruction Project is the biggest public works project undertaken over a two-year period in the city’s history, reconstructing 1.6 miles of U.S. 61-Business with a 4-to-3 conversion of the traffic lanes, improved street lighting, landscaping, gateway features, pedestrian crossings and sidewalk improvements, new traffic signals and geometric improvements, storm drainage improvements, and roadway embankment work to improve flood protection.

Modernizing U.S. 61-Business through the reconfiguration and reconstruction of the sub-standard, deteriorated roadway, and enhancing the aesthetics throughout the corridor that are consistent with Muscatine’s riverfront improvements was one of the objectives of the MDCRP.

The proposal also sought to meet the objectives of Muscatine’s complete street policy by improving both Muscatine’s quality of life and image by providing a safe and attractive environment for street users of all ages and abilities such as motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, mass transit, children, senior citizens, individuals with disabilities, freight carriers, emergency responders and adjacent land users.

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