Steam leak has local business owners fuming over lengthy fix


First there was the steam.

For two years, it hissed out of pipes under the street, squeezed into the basement of Cameron Northouse's shop, Clayton Fine Books, condensed on the ceiling and dripped onto the floor, buckling and staining the wood.

Then there was the repair job.

After Northouse and several other business owners along the 300 block of N. Charles Street complained, Trigen, a private company that supplies steam to 250 locations in Baltimore, sent out crews to repair the pipes.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in yesterday's editions of The Sun about a steam leak on North Charles Street attributed a quotation to the incorrect Department of Public Works official. Joe Kosto, who supervises permits for the department, said that permits don't require the construction site to look attractive, only to be safe and free of garbage.
The Sun regrets the error.

That was late May.

Since then, crews in bulldozers have ripped open the street in front of Northouse's shop, ringed the hole with planks of wood at irregular heights, erected a misshapen chain-link fence, hung faded blue tarps on it and rolled in a blinking sign directing traffic away from the bookstore. They've funneled steam through an orange-and-white-striped pole, hunted for the leak, temporarily patched it and are making plans to replace the faulty section of pipe.

And Northouse is steamed.

"It looks like a war zone or the entry to Hell," Northouse said of Trigen's repair effort. "Business has been incredibly slow."

For five weeks, customers have avoided his rare books and espresso because they've been turned off by steam pouring out of the street, the clatter of a jackhammer and the persistent stench of urine left by people who relieve themselves behind the tarps at night, Northouse said.

Delius Shirley, who owns Copra, a restaurant two doors down, also says he's losing customers because the repair job is taking too long.

"Business has definitely slumped off," said Shirley, surveying the lunchtime crowd in his restaurant Thursday. Although about 30 people were filling up on curried blue crab cakes and other dishes at Copra, Shirley said he had twice as many people for lunch before the bulldozers pulled up out front.

Steam also leaked into the lounge on the lower floor of Copra, bubbling the sage-green ceiling paint and staining the floor.

James Gibson, the vice president of Trigen, said he had not heard that the restaurant or the bookstore had been damaged by the steam leak, and he did not know the owners were upset about the appearance of the construction site.

Workers finally found the source of the leak on Wednesday and were to have the pipe repaired by today or tomorrow, Gibson said. They will spend one or two weeks filling in the hole and repaving the street, he said.

But Northouse said workers told him back in May that it would take only a week to repair the leak. He and Shirley complain that Trigen never sent a letter to warn about the extent or the duration of the repairs. It was only after he involved the Downtown Partnership that he got any answers, Northouse said.

Inspectors from the Department of Public Works who visited the site yesterday did not find that Trigen was violating its permits from the city, said spokesman Kurt L. Kocher. Trigen has an extended permit that enables it to block a lane of traffic there until July 20, Kocher said.

"It's not a condition of the permit that you have an attractive-looking site," Kocher said, explaining that workers must only keep the area safe and free of garbage. "It's a construction site, after all."

That was obvious to the pedestrians who crossed the street to avoid the racket this week.

"It's very noisy," said Kyunhye Baek, a student at the Peabody Conservatory, who walked on the opposite side of the street to avoid the construction clatter.

"I think it's hurting the business," said Andrea Szabo, who works nearby. As she strolled by the bookstore on her lunch break Thursday, she remarked to co-worker Lee Sattler that she hoped that the business would survive.

"It seems like it's taking a long time," Sattler said as he stood near the yawning hole. "But all construction in Baltimore seems like it takes too long."

For Northouse, who has closed his business for inventory until the construction is over, the seemingly endless repair job is just the latest of his troubles at the bookstore. The air conditioner has given out, shoplifters have pinched thousands of dollars of rare books, and someone came into the shop and stole his wife's wallet on the Fourth of July.

"It's like some kind of water torture," Northouse said of his hardships. "Drip, drip, drip."

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