Complaints from business owners surface as Complete Streets work progresses
Brewery owner critical of signage, pedestrian access
FARMINGTON — Construction on Complete Streets began less than two weeks ago, but the downtown renovation project already has drawn a fair amount of criticism from business owners in the district.
One of the loudest and most persistent voices of dissent has come from Three Rivers Brewery owner John Silva, whose operations include the Three Rivers Eatery & Brewhouse, the Three Rivers Pizzeria, the Three Rivers Brewstillery Lounge and the Three Rivers Taproom, all located in the 100 block of East Main Street.
Silva described himself as a strong supporter of the Complete Streets project and said he believes it will be a positive thing for the district when it is finished. But he takes issue with how the construction has been handled, saying the city has fallen short of its promises to business owners to mitigate its impact.
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He has expressed his dissatisfaction over what he characterizes as a lack of adequate signage and pedestrian access in a series of lengthy emails to city officials. On Jan. 16, he and Three Rivers general manager Dave Dailey met with Dave Sypher, public works director for the city; Warren Unsicker, economic development director for the city; and Shana Reeves, director of the city's Parks, Recreation & Cultural Affairs department, to discuss their concerns.
Afterward, Dailey said he was pleased with the response he and Silva received during the meeting. He said they received assurances from the city that new signage will be posted soon that specifies where public parking can be located and that downtown businesses remain open in spite of the work.
"I'm very pleased with how that conversation went," Unsicker said after the meeting with Silva and Dailey, explaining he believes both sides now have a much clearer picture of where the other side is coming from.
Dailey said city officials also agreed to consider a suggestion from the brewery's operators that pedestrian access across Main Street through the construction corridor be re-established. One of Silva's main points of contention is that the entire construction zone has been surrounded by a fence, forcing motorists who park on the north side of Main Street to go well out of their way to get to businesses such as his that are located on the south side of the street.
"It looks like a long shot" that the access will be re-established, Dailey acknowledged. "But they spent a few hours with us going through all the options."
Dailey said he appreciated Sypher, Unsicker and Reeves visiting downtown to check out his and Silva's complaints for themselves.
"I really like those three people, and I feel like they're really good to work with," he said.
He said the brewery's concerns remain, and he and Silva hope to see the new signage put in place as quickly as possible. But their immediate sense of frustration over how the early stages of the project have been handled appears to have been reduced.
"We do feel as if our voices were heard," Dailey said.
A substantial undertaking
The three-block section of Main Street included in the first phase of the Complete Streets project stretches from Hill Street on the east to Allen Avenue on the west. The entire area is enclosed with cyclone fencing, although large gates are positioned at both ends and at some locations on the sides to allow for large equipment access. The contractor, Albuquerque-based AUI Inc., performs the work, which began Jan. 6. There is no pedestrian access through the work zone.
The renovation is designed to calm traffic on Main Street through the district and make it more pedestrian friendly. Traffic will be reduced from four lanes to two lanes through the project corridor, while four roundabouts will be constructed, and 6-foot-wide lanes for parallel parking will be added. Sidewalks will be widened to 15 feet, at least 70 new trees will be planted, landscaping and irrigation systems will be added and an outdoor speaker system and free public Wi-Fi will be installed.
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The project is budgeted at $9.2 million, while a secondary $2.5 million project that includes utility infrastructure upgrades will be undertaken simultaneously. Phase one is expected to be completed within five months, and phase two, which will cover West Main Street from Allen Avenue to Auburn Avenue, is slated to begin in June and be finished in November.
City officials believe the renovation will breathe new life into downtown, which has struggled for many years to attract merchants and customers. Unsicker points to the success of similar undertakings in other communities and believes it will have a positive impact here.
But the construction work has made it more challenging for downtown visitors to access many of the district's businesses. During the first two weeks of the process, AUI workers have been tearing out and removing the Main Street pavement, as well as part of the sidewalks, though pedestrian access to all the buildings remains open. City workers cut down and removed 42 trees through the construction zone in late December.
By Jan. 17, the entire phase one section had been stripped to bare dirt, and the sound of heavy equipment operating had become an everyday occurrence. Parts of the north-south streets that access Main Street such as Orchard Avenue and Commercial Avenue also are included in the work, increasing the project's footprint beyond Main Street and eliminating some side-street parking.
Facing declining numbers
Not surprisingly, all of that has had an impact on those still trying to do business in the district. Since construction began, business at the Three Rivers enterprises is down 15 to 20 percent, Silva said. In a Jan. 17 email to James King, the project superintendent at AUI, he claimed that the previous day had been the brewery's worst day of business in 20 years.
Dailey said most of that loss of business has come during the daylight hours, with lunch traffic down an estimated 70 percent. Both men said the limited time most working people have for lunch has led many potential customers to avoid the downtown area out of a fear of not being able to locate nearby parking.
Three Rivers isn't the only prominent downtown enterprise to suffer as the construction ramped up. Nathan Hill, owner of the landmark TJ's Diner, 119 E. Main St., said the first week of business at his restaurant after the work began was average, but he saw a noticeable decline the second week.
"Through (Jan. 16), I'd say we're down probably 20 percent," he said.
Hill said that figure was better than he expected, but he noted, "We're only in about the second week of this. I expect eventually that people will get tired of the hassle of getting to us."
Hill said he was not aware that all access between the north and south sides of Main Street through the construction zone would be eliminated, nor did he know that construction on Commercial Avenue, which his diner borders, would lead to the loss of several on-street parking places regularly used by his customers.
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"When they told me they were going to take out Commercial, I knew I was in trouble," Hill said.
Some of that parking on the side street has been restored, he said, but he fears the damage is already done.
"People turn in and see that 'Road closed' sign, and they just say, 'We're out of here,'" he said.
A large sign on the back of the business advises customers of the availability of parking behind the restaurant, in addition to directing them toward a back entrance that leads through the kitchen. Hill said that back door has always been available to customers, but it wasn't until last week that they began using it in large numbers.
Silva said he understood he likely would see a reduction in his business once the project got underway. But he believes poor planning on the city's part has made that impact worse than it needed to be.
He especially worries about the effects it has had on his workers. The various Three Rivers enterprises employ 90 people, he said, and already, daytime business has been so slow he has been forced to cut the hours of some of those workers and send them home in the middle of a shift. He does not rule out the possibility of resorting to layoffs if things get worse.
The construction also got underway just as New Mexico's new minimum wage law kicked in, increasing labor costs for many businesses. And the corner of the hospitality industry that Three Rivers occupies — craft brewing — has gotten more crowded in Farmington recently with the opening last fall of the Lauter Haus Brewing Company and the planned opening this spring of the Rambler Taproom, a satellite operation of Albuquerque's Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. Neither of those businesses are based downtown, allowing them to avoid the issues surrounding the Complete Streets construction.
Getting from here to there
The Jan. 16 meeting between Three Rivers management and city officials appeared to reduce much of the tension between the two sides. Silva and Dailey had both been displeased by the quality and quantity of signage the city had put up for motorists and pedestrians, arguing it did little to let visitors know that while Main Street itself was closed, the businesses surrounding it remained open.
The signs also fell short of their expectations for letting visitors know where they could park and how they could reach their destination on foot. Unsicker told The Daily Times after that meeting the issue already was being addressed, with some new signage having gone up that day and more signs planned, including some that featured maps of the district with parking areas and pedestrian access highlighted.
Silva confirmed on Jan. 17 that the city already had produced initial versions of those maps and shown them to him. He applauded that swift action.
Unsicker said city officials are listening to the concerns of downtown business owners and acknowledged there is room for improvement.
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"We are assuring the citizenry that downtown businesses are wide open," he said. "That three-blocks section of Main Street is closed to vehicular traffic, but it remains open to pedestrians."
But the larger issue of the lack of pedestrian access through the construction zone remains a sticking point. Silva said 75 percent of his customers park on the north side of Main Street at Orchard Avenue to reach his business, and those folks now must walk two blocks out of their way to get to Three Rivers. He blames that inconvenience for most of the loss of his business and said it is an especially large issue for older customers or those with a disability.
While there is other, closer parking available in the area, he and Dailey said their customers are creatures of habit, and many of them have said they simply do not feel safe parking along Broadway Avenue or in the lot at the Wells Fargo location south of the brewery.
"Nobody wants to park back there," Dailey said. "It's a perception that people feel unsafe."
Silva said it can take years to change someone's behavior once they've developed a habit of parking in a certain place. He said the consultant hired by the city to advise the contractor on how to set up the fencing never spoke to business owners about their concerns, so the lack of pedestrian access across the construction zone wasn't taken into account — a major oversight, he believes.
He and Dailey have submitted several ideas to city officials for allowing pedestrian access across the work zone, and those ideas were explored more fully during the Jan. 16 meeting. Unsicker said those ideas are being analyzed by city officials, and he anticipates a decision about their feasibility being made within the next couple of weeks.
"We're very carefully examining that," he said. "But there are a lot of moving parts to doing that in a construction zone."
The two main options under consideration include a proposal to open a pedestrian corridor at the middle of the enclosure every night and another that would open a corridor on weekends only, when construction is halted. Unsicker said implementing either one of them will add cost and time to the completion of the project.
The set-up and break-down times for adjusting the fencing for a pedestrian corridor on a daily basis would add an estimated 48 days to the completion of phase one of the project, he said. For the weekends only, it would add an estimated 10 days, he said. Unsicker did not have estimates for the additional costs to the project.
Hopeful, but not optimistic
Silva and Dailey appreciate the lengths city officials have gone to in recent days to address their concerns, but unless pedestrian access across the work zone is restored in some fashion, they don't think it will make much difference.
"If it doesn’t happen, we're still in the same boat," Silva said.
Dailey acknowledged that issue is probably the brewery's biggest concern.
"That's huge, yes," he said, adding that if city officials can figure out a way to accommodate a pedestrian corridor, he and Silva would be very pleased.
"That would exceed our expectations," he said.
Back at the east end of the project, there is nothing the city can do now to make the situation better for his diner, Hill said, adding that that sentiment seemed to be the consensus of other downtown business owners during a meeting of city officials and stakeholders earlier in the week.
"Not now," he said. "It's done. The best thing they could do now is finish it."
Many of Hill's customers have pledged to stick with him through the construction, but Hill is bracing himself for a further decline in his business.
"I don't think we're at our worst right now," he said.
Even so, he vowed to ride out the storm, explaining that his father opened the diner in the 1960s, and it is downtown's oldest continuously operating business
"TJ's will survive — even if it's just me and my daughter left when they open the street back up," he said.
Unsicker said he is aware of the criticism that has been levied against the project in its early stages. But having been through this process before in another community, he said he understands there's no way to accomplish a change of this magnitude without encountering some unforeseen obstacles. He said he understands how important it is to maintain the lines of communication with the merchants who are being affected.
"We will make course corrections as needed," he said. "Nothing is being done in a vacuum."
Unsicker believes the result will be well worth the price downtown businesses may be paying now.
"We want to keep partnering with these businesses," he said. "I can't wait to see them thrive."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610, or via email at email@example.com.