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A stretch of 17th Street that was closed for the demolition of Cather and Pound residence halls on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln city campus would cease to be a city street entirely under a plan discussed by the City Council this week.

The university has wanted to buy the street and transform most of it into a pedestrian walkway for almost two decades, said Jennifer Dam, director of campus planning and space management.

UNL would pay about $80,000 to buy the 1.84 acres under the plan the City Council is considering.

Several council members questioned the sale price, which amounts to about $1 per square foot, during a public hearing Monday.

Unlike areas such as the Haymarket, the 17th Street land doesn’t have commercial value, said Michelle Backemeyer, with the city's Urban Development Department.

It is also difficult to find other uses for the space, she said.

“You could drive on it,” commented Councilman Roy Christensen.

Councilman Jon Camp also questioned the $80,000 price, which was set by the Urban Development Department.

“I’d love to have $1-per-square foot land," said Camp, noting that commercial land in the Haymarket, where he owns property, is up to "the $30- to $40-per-square foot range" under the new county assessments.

“It seems like the steal of the century,” he said of the 17th Street purchase.

Backemeyer said the number came from a former department staff member and was used during discussion with the university about vacating the street.  

“There is some concern (about the price tag),” said Christensen, in a telephone interview after the council meeting. “That price is a lowball."

The price is low because the city retains utility right-of-way, the council was told. But if the city required UNL to maintain those utilities, the university “would scream bloody murder,” Christensen said.

“I think we can get a different price,” he said.

The council is expected to vote on vacating the street during its Feb. 12 meeting. 

Richard Schmeling, with Citizens for Improved Transit, suggested 17th Street remain open through campus, but limited only to traffic such as buses, delivery trucks, and police and fire vehicles.

City buses, no longer allowed on 17th Street, are experiencing routine delays, Schmeling told the council. 

Schmeling said he's been told he's wasting his time making suggestions. 

"I’ve been told the university is a five-ton gorilla that lives in our town and what the university wants, the university gets,” he said.

The council was told that confusion is easing at four-way stops along 16th Street, which was made into a two-way street last summer as part of the plan to close 17th Street and make the UNL campus safer for pedestrians and bikers.

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"The confusion really seems to have settled down," Dam said.

But a regular bus rider, Pat Schreurs, disagreed with that assessment.

Schreurs, who attends many council meetings, said students aren't getting better at intersections. 

“The kids don’t care where they are going and they don’t pay any attention to what is going on,” she said.

Schmeling also recommended that the city return the traffic signal at 16th and Vine streets, where there are sometimes long delays and confusion because of the four-way stop and the number of students crossing the street. 

City Public Works and Utilities staff are looking at that situation, according to Director Miki Esposito.

City and university officials have urged commuters to avoid driving through campus and instead follow the Antelope Valley Parkway a few blocks to the east.

The university wants to turn the 17th Street corridor into a pedestrian walkway for the more than 4,000 students who live in the area, Dam said. The walkway would run in front of the new Cather Dining Hall and campus recreation fields.

Fire equipment and ambulances would still be able to get through. There would be a turnaround at the north end of the corridor, and access to Greek houses and other buildings would be maintained through a public alley and a service road, she said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7250 or nhicks@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSNancyHicks.

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Reporter

Nancy Hicks reports on Lincoln city government, but she’s been following the leaders of local and state government for more than 40 years.

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