TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City resident Nancy Johnson often uses the Cass Street pedestrian tunnel to walk from downtown Traverse City to bayfront Clinch Park.
"I use it during high peak season events like the Cherry Festival," she said.
Johnson said if the tunnel beneath Grandview Parkway was open during the winter she'd be more likely to visit Clinch Park more often. Others steer away from the tunnel because it's perceived as dark, dingy and a bit ominous. Mayor Michael Estes said city officials hope a face-lift will spark more pedestrian traffic through the tunnel as the bayfront park undergoes a $3 million revitalization.
Park upgrades include a new pavilion, a splash pool and terraces.
"The whole concept when we went about the improvements is we need to open it up for more than just the summer months," Estes said.
Traverse City commissioners recently awarded a $396,000 contract to Hallmark Construction for Cass Street tunnel lighting and entryway upgrades, as well as an electric snow melt system to keep it open year-round.
Russ Soyring, city planning director, said the tunnel project's tentative completion date is June 14 and construction is expected to start soon. Many tunnel changes are "cosmetic," Soyring said, such as resurfacing concrete walls with limestone blocks, replacing a blue awning near its entrance with new signage and installing LED lights in the tunnel itself.
Other changes include widening tunnel entrances, landscaping, bike racks and new stairs near the parking lot at the south entrance.
Estes said the bayfront park has its own parking and crosswalk access, but making the tunnel more inviting provides more opportunities to access the improved park area without having cross traffic-heavy Grandview Parkway.
"We'd much rather have them underground than have them in conflict with automobiles," he said.
Lake Leelanau resident Debbie Smith said she uses the tunnel during seasonal events, but wondered if improvements were necessary.
"Do we have other things that money can go toward?" she said.
City Commissioner Mike Gillman said financial concerns prompted him to vote against the plan, though he said he supports the tunnel and bayfront projects. He said he wanted to see a cost-benefit analysis over the $21,000 solar and wind energy component to the snow melt system.
"I did want to make a point," he said. "I suspect in the future when we get energy-saving allegations that they're backed up by numbers ... it was not a vote against the project, it was a small part of it."
Commissioners approved the tunnel contract with a 5 percent contingency in case of cost overruns.
City Manager Ben Bifoss said plans for the bayfront project's next phase haven't yet been determined.