Poor planning on road project

Published 9:42 pm Wednesday, March 26, 2014

By the time people begin to move into the new loft apartments being built by Monument Construction Co. on the 100 block of West Washington Street, the protracted closure of that thoroughfare will be just a memory. Unfortunately, some of the businesses that now line that portion of the downtown corridor could themselves be but a memory then, too, and their failure — if the worst happens — would be attributable, in part, to the city’s poor planning surrounding the project.

West Washington has long been a troubled area for everything from restaurants to retail. Just when businesses there seem to have found their footing in the tough downtown market, their customers, with alarming regularity, learn the doors are closing. The Monument project, which is converting much of the south side of the street into lofts and retail space, has been seen as an opportunity to make a positive difference in this important corridor.

But the price could be high for those existing businesses on the street that have had to suffer through construction. Utility work beneath the road has closed the block for weeks, and city officials do not expect the work to be complete until mid-April.

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With the Monument project in full swing, it made sense to upgrade 100-year-old stormwater drains now, rather than wait until Monument was done and there were many new residents who could have been impacted by the utility work. But city officials dropped the ball in failing to account for the effect their work would have on existing properties there and to plan an approach that would limit their losses.

Businesses were given as little as two business days’ notice of the most recent extended closure. There was no initial plan for providing easy access to the stores and restaurants on the block. Detours around the affected area at West Washington and South Saratoga streets are confusing and poorly marked. And there still is no plan in place for travel along those streets when work is not in progress.

To its credit, the city has been running newspaper and Internet advertisements reminding customers that the businesses are still open, and officials recently responded to owners’ complaints by opening a portion of West Washington to parking. Orange road signs alert drivers that businesses are open.

But the reactive nature of the city’s efforts, the substandard communications and the fact that the project hasn’t been noticeably fast-tracked all serve to give current business owners there a feeling of their needs being secondary to those of the Monument project and an impression that city leaders are not really engaged with the business climate in downtown Suffolk.

City officials should not, for example, have to wait for business owners to beg for a lane to be opened for traffic or for clear directions on how to leave the downtown area from the Cherry Street parking lot before implementing positive, proactive measures to protect the businesses that already pay taxes and make payroll in Suffolk.

Folks in Suffolk — including the current West Washington Street shopkeepers — have good reason to be excited about the work that’s taking place there. Suffolk’s handling of the project, however, has left many of those shopkeepers wondering whether the city’s planners and administrators are as excited about the businesses that already exist there.