Healdsburg looks to close loop on contentious $14 million roundabout project

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Healdsburg Roundabout Ceremony

Healdsburg roundabout ribbon-cutting ceremony:

When: 5 p.m. Thursday

Where: between West Mill and Healdsburg avenues, near Parish Cafe

After two long years, Healdsburg’s new roundabout is just about finished, finally providing a key gateway to the city’s downtown — and ending the anguish that residents and local businesses said the project caused.

Billed as the solution to a clunky five-way intersection, the highly touted project fast became a multimillion-dollar headache, and in turn the butt of jokes around town, on social media and in the region’s infrastructure circles.

Those affected by more than a year of setbacks during construction felt as though they’d fallen, unwittingly, into a running gag with no end.

“It will be quite a relief to have it finished,” admitted Larry Zimmer, Healdsburg’s public works director. “I’m looking forward to not having to talk about the roundabout again, or just looking forward to talking about the great result instead of the great difficulty in getting it done.”

Zimmer came aboard in January — at the midpoint of the $10.3 million project and just after the height of its unexpected complications. The traffic circle, which also has train tracks running through it for a future Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit service, was originally scheduled to be completed in September 2017, but faced 14 months of delays in part because construction workers damaged underground utility lines and needed to replace them.

The roundabout still needs some repairs, including fixing a chipped curb and light pole, that Concord-based contractor Bay Cities Paving & Grading will have to address before the City Council can sign off on its completion. But Zimmer said it’s “essentially done” and a drastic improvement from what was previously the city’s downtown entry point.

“The results are fabulous,” he said. “It moves traffic quietly, and really functions well from a cyclist and pedestrian standpoint. We went through pain to get there, but it’s worth it.”

Not everyone agrees, namely some of the nearby business owners who say they experienced a considerable drop-off in walk-in customers because tourists and residents chose to avoid the orange cones and extended detours.

“When they decided to do this project, they didn’t take into consideration the loss of income a lot of small businesses in town suffered,” said Nancy Van Praag, co-owner of the Singletree Cafe just south of the roundabout.

“I’m sure a lot of people are a lot more enthusiastic about it than I am. I’m just really happy that it’s over.”

Fritz Prinz, service manager at Spoke Folk Cyclery, called the roundabout “a big improvement,” but also said the business suffered “a pretty dramatic impact” during the two years of construction. East Mill Street, where the bicycle shop is located, was closed for months for paving and sidewalk upgrades, which he said also made it harder for employees to get to work.

“When you’re working as hard as you can and doing good work and people aren’t coming to town, it makes it tough,” Prinz said.

“We do thrive on tourists, and when you couple that with the fires last year, it was a very, very difficult time.”

Since August, the roads feeding into the roundabout have mostly stayed open, and Prinz was looking forward to foot traffic returning to prior levels.

At least four other neighboring businesses — the Valdez Family Winery tasting room, Sonoma Cider taproom, FLO beer and wine bar and Cafe Lucia — took aim in part at the protracted roundabout construction for forcing them to shutter.

Healdsburg Roundabout Ceremony

Healdsburg roundabout ribbon-cutting ceremony:

When: 5 p.m. Thursday

Where: between West Mill and Healdsburg avenues, near Parish Cafe

“I’m just lucky I was able to work out a deal with my landlady to make it through,” said Van Praag, who also benefited from a fall 2017 fundraiser to help keep the restaurant afloat. “Because if I wouldn’t have, I would have been out of business just like the rest of them.”

An exact completion date for the roundabout still hasn’t been identified, but landscaping around the project — one of its last steps — was finished in mid-November.

For the meantime, the city is in the midst of reviewing whether it will request fees from the contractor of up to $1,000 for each day it exceeded the project’s original deadline.

Bay Cities filed a claim with the city, saying unforeseen problems with the project caused some of the delays.

Messages left over multiple days for Eric Barker, Bay Cities general manager who has overseen the Healdsburg roundabout project, went unreturned last week.

Zimmer said however it all shakes out over the coming months, the roundabout will be delivered on budget, which includes $2.7 million paid to Santa Rosa-based engineering firm GHD for the city’s project management and design needs. All told, the project cost a total of about $14 million.

The roundabout has been fully functional for more than two months, and the city is planning an official opening ceremony at 5 p.m. Thursday. It’ll include music from local marimba player Tim Pile, in addition to original poems read by the city’s poet laureate, Russ Messing, and Mayor Brigette Mansell.

“It’s time for our community to do something on the healing side and less on the critical and cynical side,” said Mansell.

“I’m not trying to sugarcoat it. But any time something reaches completion, we need to take advantage of that as community leaders and come together. It’s been an arduous labor, if I’m going to create an analogy. The baby is born, let’s celebrate it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or at kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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