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Thomas Grubar touches up rock that is part of the streetscape project in Utica, which will spruce up both realigned Route 178 and portions of downtown. The stones came from a quarry in Wisconsin. The stones could not come from local quarries due to the softer sandstone and these rocks matched the patina Utica was looking for. The project is being built by Copenhaver Construction Inc. Flowers and other shrubs will be planted along with the stones.
Kevin “Chops” Stewart manages the bar at a popular Utica watering hole and gets the question all the time: What’s with the big blocks on Route 178? Stewart is also a Utica village trustee and happens to know the answer. The limestone blocks, hewn from a quarry in Wisconsin, are decorative and are being carefully laid at select edges of Route 178. Motorists have done double-takes at the “boulders” and it’s fallen to Stewart to explain to tourists this is the culmination of the “streetscape” program. Though the realignment of Route 178 was completed last year — the highway no longer runs through downtown but rather along a north-south bypass — Utica isn’t quite finished with the road. While the state negotiated for right-of-way and plotted the highway’s course, Utica officials spent hours mulling over how to make the functional highway reflect positively on Utica and its proximity to state parks. “There has been some positive feedback,” Stewart observed, noting the beautification project still is in its early stages. “It’s going to be very nice.” More importantly, it will mark the end of a major initiative launched after the deadly tornado in 2004. The catastrophe was ultimately blamed for 10 deaths, including eight in the collapse of the Milestone Restaurant and Lounge, and extensive structural damage throughout the village. Utica officials were confronted not only with the daunting task of rebuilding but also the hefty decision of whether to invest in improvements while doing so. After much debate, the decision was made to seek the realignment of Route 178 and reduce truck traffic downtown, making Mill Street more pedestrian friendly. Not content with a functional bypass, the village also retained a design firm, EXP (formerly Teng), to give it a natural look consistent with Utica’s surroundings. “The idea was to tie the project together with the quarries, Starved Rock, the bluffs and all the rock outcroppings,” said Kevin Heitz, Utica village engineer. ““It looks pretty sharp at night, actually. It’s going to be a significantly visible project.” Heitz said the contractor, Copenhaver Construction, Inc. of Gilberts, is making good progress and already has decorative light poles in place. Still under construction are stamped concrete walkways as well as trees and shrubs slated for planting this fall or in spring 2014. The upshot is the construction and planting is unlikely to be done in time for the Oct. 13 Burgoo Festival, but certainly by April 20, 2014, giving villagers an occasion to reflect on how far Utica has come since disaster struck. “The project most likely will not be completed by Burgoo,” Heitz said, “but we will have a showable state and we’ll dress it up as much as possible.” Heitz acknowledged the 10th anniversary of the tornado looms large in the minds of villagers, who can be proud not only of the new roadway but of the recovery from Utica’s worst disaster. “It really is hard to believe it’s been 10 years,” Heitz said. “But that’s just the time it takes to do it and do it right.”