Wed11262014

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Not done yet: Downtown's First Street revamp project to continue into holiday season

Photo Elliott Burr/Town Crier Lite for Life manager Ashlee Gossard surveys construction work outside her store's window. She said customers think she's closed.

They’re open for business at the downtown Los Altos weight-loss company Lite for Life. But that might be harder to discern than it once was, according to the store’s manager.

She blames the construction – and protective mesh netting at the foot of her storefront.

“It looks like we’re closed,” said Ashlee Gossard, who also noted that three parking spots outside her shop have been lost to the redesign. “People still call asking if we’re open. … It has decimated the second half of our year. … If we were just retail (the store also offers nutritional consulting), we would probably close.”

Many other merchants impacted by the estimated $2 million First Street project tell similar stories.

Steve Oberhauser, manager of European Cobblery shoe and repair store at the other end of the project, said his business is down approximately 30 percent since construction started midway through summer.

No one – not even city representatives – appreciates the backhoes and tractors causing disturbances to nearby businesses, some still reeling from intersection closures months ago.

But relief may still be further off.

Work has hit a few snags, pushing back the project’s completion at least two more weeks, Beverly Tucker, information manager for the project, acknowledged. Tucker, the city’s recreation director, has been disseminating construction information to the public and merchants since July. She said unanticipated re-engineering of a water line during roadbed grading along First Street contributed to the delay.

The road, closed for repaving last week, is now graded so that water runoff will flow to a storm drain down one side of the street. Early in the project, when crews excavated the street, they realized the grading design would require engineers to fit a new concrete cap to keep the water line structurally sound.

“Anytime you do a construction project of this magnitude and intricacy, you hit delays,” said Tucker, who noted that crews have been making up for lost time by working weekends.

Gossard offered her own observation: “On any given day, there are very few people actually working.”

“We tried to plan, but it’s never perfect,” Tucker said. “When you open a street that hasn’t been exposed for a long time, you can never anticipate fully what you’re going to find.”

The original timeline projected completion of major roadwork for the end of October. Delays have included weather-related postponements that hampered street paving, scheduled to begin Nov. 4, Tucker noted. She added that First Street should reopen to two-way traffic near Thanksgiving.

Another hang-up occurred last week when city officials refused to accept the large monoliths that arrived as scheduled but did not meet the city’s specifications. (For details, see “Did we keep the receipt?")

Tucker acknowledged the inconveniences and frustrations of both merchants and shoppers because of construction delays.

“We balance a fine line,” she said. “A lot goes into the background of this, but it doesn’t actually make up for someone not being able to drive where they want to drive.”

 

Told you so

Councilwoman Val Carpenter said she feared potential delays would impact downtown merchants and shoppers during the holiday season. Carpenter, along with Councilwoman Megan Satterlee, cast dissenting votes in a 3-2 decision by the city council in May to approve the project.

“My issue was one of timing,” Carpenter told the Town Crier. “I support the project, but I just thought that we should wait until after the holiday season so that it didn’t further impact the merchants. It’s their busiest season.”

Khatchig Jingirian, president of Smythe & Cross Fine Jewelry at 350 Main St., said months ago when the project first began that it was “fantastic,” but he wondered why there was no respite between the First Street project and the recently completed intersection upgrades.

“To do everything at once and not give merchants a breather, I find a discord between city council and the merchants,” he said.

Carpenter, a marketing executive and former Los Altos Village Association board member, said she’s acutely aware of the economic toll the project has taken on several downtown business near the construction site.

“It is irritating to me,” she said. “It’s not surprising, but disappointing. This is exactly why I wanted (the project’s timeline delayed) until after the holidays. Many of the retailers do 40-plus percent of their business for the whole year (during) the holiday period. … I’m just worried about their ability to survive and prosper.”

 

Proof is in the pudding

Tucker said she’s well aware that construction has negatively impacted downtown businesses and customers alike.

“It’s frustrating for people, and we really want to be sensitive to that,” Tucker said. “Our citizens, our shoppers and our residents are really important. The project is going to benefit them, but it’s also inconveniencing them at the same time.”

Once First Street opens to two-way traffic, Tucker noted, all major components of the project’s current phase – Phase 1A – will be completed, leaving only minor work on the First Street sidewalks, which should not affect pedestrians.

“It’s been very hard on the merchants down there, and we know that,” Tucker said. “I’m really looking forward to getting this thing done so that we can get out of their hair.”

Still, while jackhammering and road closures have been disruptive, Oberhauser, the European Cobblery owner, remains optimistic.

“We’re positive that when it’s all done, everything’s going to pick back up,” he said. “It’s going to be nice – there’s no need to be down about it.”

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