2016-01-21 / Front Page

Broadway Merchants on Edge

By Barry Bridges

City and RIDOT officials met with concerned merchants on Wednesday, Jan. 20, to review the progress of the Broadway Streetscape Project up to its winter hiatus and to discuss what might be expected when road and sidewalk construction once again commences in April.

Business owners are worried that disruptions from the next phase of the initiative, which will proceed south from Equality Park along the west side of Broadway when spring arrives, could prove to be difficult. Many of the corridor’s stores and restaurants are situated compactly on that side of the street, an area which also hosts a significant number of parking spaces.

Around two dozen store owners have banded together to form the Broadway Merchants Association (BMA). They have brainstormed possible remedies to what they foresee as another summer of lackluster sales resulting from the continuing road and sidewalk project, which they maintain could put some out of business.

The group’s questions, ideas, and criticisms were largely the focus of the informational meeting on Wednesday.

Newport Bicycle’s Christina Erwin said, “One of the things we’ve run into is that as the construction plan evolves, the businesses are not informed.” For example, she described instances where water service was cut off and proprietors were not alerted beforehand. “Those types of details help us know how to plan. How can we open up the lines of communication?” she asked.

RIDOT resident engineer Joe Godino, who oversees the daily details of the construction contract, offered his assurances that he will be going door to door visiting with merchants as work moves down the street, and further encouraged everyone to sign up with RIDOT for emailed weekly updates.

Interim City Manager Joseph Nicholson added that he should be considered as the primary contact at City Hall to address issues that come up. “In terms of communication with the city, the buck stops in my office,” he said.

Mayor Jeanne-Marie Napolitano acknowledged some of the prior problems. “It was totally unexpected when the water was shut off. There have been surprises across the board with utilities.”

Another prevailing concern is the project’s anticipated impact on parking.

Godino reported that around the middle of April work will begin to proceed down Broadway in three segments: Equality Park to Oak; Oak to City Hall; and City Hall to Farewell Street. With each section taking six to eight weeks to complete, with parking unavailable in the affected area around the clock, construction will extend through the summer.

BMA members are hoping that the city will find alternative parking areas, plan for smaller segments to retain more spaces, or consider opening them up on weekends.

“We’ll continue to look at surrounding properties to see what the possibilities are,” said Napolitano. Nicholson remarked that in the last few days some ideas had emerged that he would be exploring. “We need to look at alternative parking in a very aggressive way, or perhaps think about adjusting the schedule a bit,” he commented.

Additional discussions during the two-hour meeting spanned the gamut of topics, such as the idea of halting work during the “income quarter” from July through September; how installation of new sidewalks has been designed to minimize obstacles to patrons; a parking ticket moratorium; and the city paying for overtime costs to move everything along more quickly.

Notwithstanding the variety of subjects being vetted, the frustration of those in the room remained evident. Broadway businesses have managed with ongoing road construction for years.

Mary Wall of Ben’s Chili Dogs said, “The theme I keep hearing is that in some way it’s still OK to place the burden on us. We can’t just keep putting out and putting out and putting out. Every small business owner has their house on the line and their credit cards to keep things going. We’re going into the fourth year of this. Forget paying for overtime; bring in two shifts. At least give us a break [in the roadwork] in July and August.”

“I understand the problems and I feel awful about it, but we will try to address them. We will be working with this group,” said Napolitano. “The [streetscape] has been a process. We didn’t expect it to go over three seasons, but that’s what happened and we’re in the final parts now.”

While the completion date for Broadway’s renovation was originally estimated for November of this year, some elements such as installing raised crosswalks and completing landscaping and lighting will move into the spring of 2017.

The merchants, the city, and RIDOT agreed to keep lines of communication open and ideas flowing, especially as the construction season approached. BMA representatives will continue conversations with Nicholson, and another community meeting will be held in a few weeks.

For the proprietors, no potential idea is too insignificant. “This half of the project is going to be more disruptive than anything we’ve seen thus far,” said the BMA’s Jamey Simoes, of Corner Café. “And every time there’s a small interruption, you’re talking about the possibility of taking somebody’s job and crushing it.”

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