Four-year Jayhawk Boulevard construction project could end with re-creation of old tree canopy, new center bike lane

This rendering from the planning firm Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Co. shows how KU's Jayhawk Boulevard could look after a reconstruction project scheduled for the next four summers. This eastward view from in front of Strong Hall shows a possible bike lane through the center of the road, as well as a re-created canopy of trees planted between the curb and sidewalk on either side. Such a canopy of elm trees was once present in the middle of the 20th Century, before disease largely wiped it out.

This photo from Kansas University's archives shows how the elm canopy over Jayhawk Boulevard looked in the 1950s. By the mid-1970s, dutch elm disease had killed most of the trees alongside the road.

Construction coming

Expect construction and closures along Kansas University’s Jayhawk Boulevard this summer — and for the next three summers after that.

Work will begin the week following KU’s commencement this spring, set for May 19. It will continue until about the first week of August.

This portion of construction will take place on Jayhawk Boulevard from the Chi Omega fountain roundabout east to Poplar Lane, which runs between Snow and Strong halls. But the road will be closed this summer from Naismith Drive, in front of the Jayhawk Bookstore, to Sunflower Road, just east of Bailey Hall.

West Campus Road will also be closed north of Jayhawk Boulevard at Memorial Drive, the final intersection before it ends at the Chi Omega roundabout.

It’s going to take awhile, but Kansas University’s signature campus street is about to undergo a facelift the likes of which haven’t been seen in decades.

Over the next four summers, KU will be reconstructing Jayhawk Boulevard piece by piece. The end result could include not just new, smooth pavement and sidewalks, but also restoration of a historic tree canopy mostly absent for the last 40 years and a bicycle lane down the center of the road.

And that’s not to mention the work that will happen down below the street: new utility lines, repairs to underground utility tunnels and a new, more sustainable storm sewer system.

Altogether, KU expects to spend about $11 million in state funds on the construction, from this coming summer through summer 2016, said Jim Modig, KU’s director of design and construction management.

The first piece of construction will begin immediately after commencement in May, taking place on the boulevard’s western end at the Chi Omega fountain. Future installments will take place during the following three summers, moving eastward and then around the bend to the north.

Modig said this will be the first full-scale project of this kind for the road at the heart of KU’s campus in at least the 34 years he’s worked for the university.

“Nothing of this scale of repair and improvement,” he said.

Except for a few patches that have been repaired here and there, the road, sidewalks and utilities have been slowly crumbling. Modig said that was the impetus for the construction plans, which have been in the works for several years.

New features

But the new street could also have a couple of elements that will give it a whole new look.

In the middle of the 20th Century, rows of elm trees used to line the sides of Jayhawk Boulevard, between the curb and the sidewalk. They formed an arching canopy over the street.

But by the mid-1970s, most of the canopy had been wiped out by dutch elm disease that had spread through the campus. This construction, though, presents an opportunity to re-create it.

The plans will leave space on the sides of the road for a new canopy, and KU is working with the KU Endowment Association to raise private funds to plant trees that could frame the street just as those old elms once did.

Endowment officials are hoping they can tap into the nostalgia of alumni who remember what that scene used to look like, said Dale Slusser, assistant vice president for the Endowment.

“Our graduates have a very strong emotional tie to that, that vision of walking down Jayhawk Boulevard with the full tree canopy,” Slusser said.

Officials estimate the cost of planting a new canopy at about $1 million, he said. That would include about 200 trees and some 80,000 square feet of other landscaping.

The fundraising effort has just begun, but depending on its success, the first trees could be planted by the end of this year, Slusser said, after the first piece of construction is complete.

The new canopy would contain some disease-resistant elms similar to the historic ones, with some other species mixed in. That should ensure this one stays in place for years to come, Modig said.

“We’re putting a variety in so we have some resistance to disease wiping out everything,” he said.

Also planned is the addition of a bike lane to the street, Modig said. But lanes on the outside of the street would probably make it quite a challenge for bicyclists to navigate around the buses constantly stopping at the curb along Jayhawk Boulevard during the day, with doors swinging open and students walking on and off.

“The potential for conflict with bikes would be probably pretty high,” Modig said.

So the firm currently putting together a new master plan for the KU campus, Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas and Co., has suggested one bike lane down the middle of the road. It’s an idea that’s been used successfully in other parts of the country, Modig said, and it helps keep bikers safe by making them more visible. And the constantly stopping buses wouldn’t be an issue.

One might imagine that buses making left turns and crossing the bike lane would present problems, but none of KU’s bus routes involve left turns at the one major intersection on Jayhawk, at Sunflower Road near Bailey Hall.

Repairs needed

Whether the center bike lane comes to fruition, the project will help replace a lot of infrastructure that’s been crumbling, Modig said. Sidewalks have cracked and shifted, creating “toe-stubbers” and creating problems for people with disabilities. New sidewalks will be smoother and contain more curb ramps that meet modern-day Americans with Disabilities Act requirements.

KU will also replace some water lines that are more than a century old and repair some of the underground tunnels that carry steam and communications lines to buildings around campus.

Also outdated is the boulevard’s storm drainage system, Modig said. The street right now has only two storm sewer inlets, and when it rains heavily some water can end up flowing over the sidewalks and down the side of the hill to the north instead of draining.

“I’ve seen anywhere in the neighborhood of an inch-plus of water running over the sidewalk,” Modig said.

During the future phases of the construction, he said, planners are considering some changes to the storm sewer system that would filter the runoff, store it temporarily to allow for a metered flow and provide an irrigation system for the future canopy trees.

The first construction phase this summer will cost about $2.5 million, Modig said. Construction will be from the Chi Omega fountain east to Poplar Lane, the road that runs between Strong and Snow halls.

The boulevard will be closed from the fountain to Sunflower Road, with some sidewalks also closed.

Expect to deal with closures for the following three summers, too. But after that, you can expect the new-look Jayhawk Boulevard to stand for years to come.