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By Robert Connors
Managing Editor 

West Park Avenue Reopens to Traffic, East Park Closes as Project Advances

All Downtown Businesses REmain Open During Construction

 

Last updated 2/2/2024 at 12:21pm

Susan Connors

West Park Avenue is now opened to two-way traffic from Wetmore Street to First Street. The adjoining segment of First Street in from of the Walesbilt Hotel, including the intersection with Park Avenue, is now open as well, allowing traffic flow to resume to the Lake Wales post office and adjacent businesses.

While the ribbon-cutting and dedication of the newly reconstructed portions of Park Avenue and First Street remains in the planning stage, the newly-completed stretches of West Park Avenue and North First Street are now open to two-way traffic.

The opening comes concurrent with the closure of the eastern portion of Park Avenue, a situation expected to last most of the year as the pavement is removed, utilities upgraded, and new sidewalks and brick streets are installed.

Shoppers and visitors to Park Avenue businesses are encouraged to use existing parking on Stuart and Orange Avenues, as well as city parking lots accessible from Orange, during the construction phase.

The improvements to West Park are not fully completed but reopening the street to traffic was a priority, according to city officials. New benches, lighting, and street art are yet to be installed, but rows of new live oak trees and pond cypress, along with a dense planting of ornamentals, has transformed the stretch into a garden spot, an effect that will be extended to the rest of the street.

City officials emphasize that the new Park Avenue is now a two-way street, converted from the former one-way, overwide strip of pavement. Parking is available on both sides of the new street.

The project is a key part of the Lake Wales Connected plan, a $20 million effort to reinvigorate the commercial heart of the city and make it attractive to private investors. New downtown residential development along with new commercial activity is expected to follow the project.

The project is funded by the Lake Wales Community Redevelopment Agency, which is utilizing tax increments accumulated since the mid-1980's founding of the CRA. The revenue is captured from city and county shares of property taxes without any increase in tax rates.

The attraction of investment seems to have moved faster than anticipated, as multiple downtown buildings are currently being renovated and historic facades restored.

The CRA and City of Lake Wales recently approved an application for grants totaling more than $20 million in additional funding, which would be used to complete the ambitious goals of the Connected plan. Included are the reconstruction of First Street from Central Avenue to Dr. J.A. Wiltshire Boulevard, a distance of more than half a mile.

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Parking for downtown visitors is available with on-street parking on Orange and Stuart Avenues. The portion of Park Avenue east of First Street in now closed to traffic, but West Park Avenue and First Street have now reopened to traffic flow and parking.

Other projects are being funded by separate federal grants, including new streetscaping and lighting on Orange and Crystal Avenues east of First Street. As with Park Avenue, rain gardens are included to reduce storm-water runoff.

Plans for streets are currently under review by the Florida Department of Transportation, and funding is "programmed" to be received later this year, according to City Manager James Slaton. Bids are anticipated to be received in June, with construction projected to begin in the fall.

West Central Avenue from First Street to Scenic Highway is also on the list of streets to receive upgrades, with new landscaping, parking, and a bike track on the drawing boards.

The addition of West Central, Orange, and Crystal Avenues brought to more than 45 the number of blocks to be improved under the plan, including many blocks of new sidewalks and street trees in the Northwest Neighborhood.

 

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