Project disrupts life on Main Street in Ellicott City

Hassles: Shop renovations lead to street work that interferes with people and business.

August 17, 2005|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,SUN STAFF

It was quiet in the Cacao Lane Bar and Restaurant. The lunchtime customers had cleared out. The tables were set for dinner with wine glasses and linen napkins.

The problem for Andrew Lutz was outside.

"Today [Aug. 10] was supposed to be the deadline," said Lutz, Cacao Lane's general manager, pointing out the restaurant's front window.

Just across the sidewalk, in the shadow of the Cacao Lane's green awning, a 50-foot-long trench was torn in historic Ellicott City's narrow Main Street. It was cordoned off by orange plastic fencing wrapped around orange-and-white pylons and wooden traffic barriers. Cages of rebar and pieces of storm drains wrapped in white foam were jumbled in the bottom of the trench.

"Call me crazy, but it just doesn't look done," Lutz said.

Contractors for Howard County began in April replacing the antiquated underground pipes supplying water to the historic district's potpourri of gift shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. The trench was the latest hassle to emerge from the project, which as of last week had taken twice as long as expected.

The headaches started when construction crews began rooting around under the old mill town.

"They were breaking water lines left and right," Lutz said.

He had to close Cacao Lane several times when the stone-walled restaurant lost water during the evening dinner rush. When the water did come back on, it was often too murky to serve to customers.

"In this business, we can't operate without water," Lutz said.

Water was also a problem outside the restaurant.

A truck ran over a pipe sticking out of the road one day, sending water jetting across Main Street toward Tea on the Tiber, a Victorian-style tea shop named for the Tiber River that runs through town. Another time, a burst pipe sprayed water two stories into the air in front of Cocao Lane.

There were other headaches, as well.

Work crews patched holes in the road with temporary asphalt. When the summer sun softened the patches, shoppers tracked the asphalt into businesses, leaving sticky black footprints on carpets and wood floors.

Metal plates covering other holes clanked incessantly as cars rolled over them.

To avoid disrupting business and traffic on heavily traveled Main Street, construction crews work at night. For Alda Baptiste, who lives above a shop just down the street from the Cacao Lane, that often meant an all-night, jack-hammer lullaby.

"We're trying to sleep with the hammer drilling and screaming," she said.

According to Don Campbell, the county engineer who supervised the project, construction was slowed by a serpentine mess of sewage pipes, unmarked utility wires and gas lines the constructions crews found under the street. Some of the old water pipes were unused but still under pressure. And all of the pipes were too close to the surface.

"Whoever installed them dug until they hit rock and just put the lines over rock," he said.

The first construction crew failed to meet the project's June 1 deadline and was replaced July 4 by three new crews. The work is expected to be completed by the end of this month.

The project was initiated when several business owners wanted to renovate their shops. Building codes require that sprinkler systems be installed when the fire-prone stone-and-wood buildings are renovated, but the nearly 50-year-old water main was too small to support the sprinklers.

A fire started by a careless smoker in 1999 destroyed several of the town's 19th-century buildings and displaced several businesses and families. Few of the buildings had sprinkler systems.

As of last week, the new water main had been installed and the crews were replacing old storm drains that allowed water to pool in the street and stagnate.

"You couldn't stand the stink," said Jane Phillips, owner of a shop named Country Crafters.

Campbell realizes the construction irritated people, but he insists the old water main provided too little water to the busy downtown area.

"We're not doing it because we like to dig big holes in the roadway," he said, "They really need fire protection down there."

Barry Gibson lives down the street from Cacao Lane above the Forget-Me-Not Factory, a shop with a giant stuffed unicorn, pink tiaras and bubble wands displayed in its front window.

He watched construction crews closely over the past four months.

"They ran into a whole bag of worms," he said. "The stuff I saw under there was a nightmare."

But he wondered if planning work in historic Ellicott City and selecting contractors might need some "fine-tuning."

"This area is like an old car; it's very delicate," he said.

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