Construction work builds concerns for Mount Washington merchants

Sewer project is draining sales, some owners say

July 13, 2004|By Ilene Hollin | Ilene Hollin,SUN STAFF

The charm of Mount Washington Village in North Baltimore is a little hard to find these days amid jackhammers, cranes and caution tape, which some business owners say have hurt sales.

In January last year, the city's Department of Public Works began what was supposed to be a one-year project to replace a sewer main.

But the project to install about 1,000 feet of sewer 25 feet below ground stopped two months later when workers hit granite boulders that equipment could not penetrate. Workers were forced to abandon the micro-tunneling machinery, which had allowed them to complete 25 feet per day, and resume work by hand, which slowed progress to 4 feet.

Lost customers

The owners of some restaurants and boutiques directly beside the construction said they have seen their business decrease between 30 percent and 40 percent from previous years. Sandye Jurus, owner of Jurus, a village jewelry store on Newbury Street beside the construction, said she is barely treading water.

Blake Wollman, owner of The Desert Cafe, a sidewalk restaurant near the heart of the construction on Sulgrave Avenue, said he has lost customers because of the noisy generator for construction beside his porch.

"No one wants to sit outside," Wollman said. "To see everyone inside on a Saturday night when it is 80 degrees outside infuriates me."

While business has slowed to a crawl for Wollman and others, Ethel's and Ramone's, a restaurant a few doors down, says its business increased 20 percent this year. The owners of many other businesses farther removed from the construction said they see it as a nuisance, but not a business catastrophe.

Owners and customers agree that the construction's presence has put parking at a premium in an area where spaces have always been scarce.

With a few small lots and parking street meters, the area cannot accommodate customers of more than 40 businesses.

Frequent village patron Roxanne Stigers of Harford County said she opted to leave her mother at home because she thought she would have to park too far away.

Parking and digging, among other reasons, caused Diana's European Skin Care to move four months ago to Timonium, after 10 years on Sulgrave Avenue, said Nicholas Gavrila, vice president of operation for Diana's.

Despite inconveniences and loss of sales, owners said they understand that the work is necessary.

"All the construction down here is down here for a reason," said Ed Bloom, owner of Ethel's and Ramone's. "The reason was made crystal clear [Wednesday] night with the flooding. Without these improvements, we are dead."

Flood help

Many agree that the large holes and new sewers that are now in place alleviated much of the water pressure Wednesday, and they would have faced worse damage than 4 feet of standing water.

Although thankful that the work is being completed, Wollman, president of the Mount Washington Village Association, said he believes it could have been done more efficiently.

He plans to file a complaint asking for compensation to businesses for their losses in the form of grants, money or free publicity. He said the ground was poorly tested and the problem could have been avoided.

Public works officials disagree. They said 14 soil borings sampled a large portion of ground and detected no granite.

"We are doing everything we physically can to finish this project and get out of the area," said Mike Schultz, chief of construction management for the Bureau of Water and Wastewater. "It is just an unfortunate situation that we encountered what we did, which was an unforeseen situation."

With 100 feet remaining to finish, private contractor Corman Construction has workers on site for two 8-hour shifts on weekdays, and one 8-hour shift on both Saturdays and Sundays.

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