Boxed in: 'War zone' on Mall hurting businesses
Chas Webster figured that by now there’d be a lovely outdoor patio space and a luxury hotel in front of his restaurant The Box on Second Street SE. Instead, he's looked out on what he describes as a “war zone” for over two years. And it’s taking a toll.
“Yesterday, I couldn’t even get into my own business,” he says, as the entrance to the building had been blocked off, allegedly without notice, by a construction crews under contract to the City.
“It’s ridiculous," says Webster. "The City promised this would take four months. Now it’s taken almost twice as long as it did to renovate the entire Mall.”
Indeed, while many Downtown businesses suffered during last year's multi-month re-bricking of the Mall, the Box and other businesses on Second Street SE have endured a special kind of torture.
Demolition of the old Boxer Learning/Central Fidelity bank building began over two years ago to allow construction of the 11-story tower. The subsequent renovation of Second Street SE means that businesses like The Box, Zabor Dance Studio, and Oyster House Antiques haven't had an open street outside their front doors for over two years. (And even when hotel construction ceased, the street was treated, with piles of debris, like a landfill.)
Last September, Hal Brindley, owner of Oyster House Antiques, accepted the notion that construction would “hurt for a little while." But his stoicism has turned to bitterness after the latest move: construction workers putting up yellow caution tape and signs announcing that the street was closed entirely.
“It’s like a stake through our hearts,” says Brindley. “Three-quarters of my business comes from people walking by the shop.”
Webster estimates he’s lost about $300,000 worth of lunch business due to the ongoing construction. He’s also lost his patience.
“People don’t want to come down here, and I don’t blame them,” says Webster. “I just lost $7,000 because a private party pulled out."
Webster opened the Box around the same time demolition began when his business was hidden down a tunnel of scaffolding. Since then, dealing with dust and debris inside his restaurant, lights out on the street at night, and flooding when it rains–- as the shell of the Landmark has become “an urban waterfall,” he says–- has made staying open an uphill battle.
"We’ve been robbed, vandalized; our windows have been kicked out. My delivery guys can’t access the restaurant." says Webster. "A customer got a screw stuck in his foot. I've had to fix barriers when they've fallen down. I don’t know how we’ve survived this long.”
“It’s certainly destroying our business,” says Edwin Roa, the owner of the Zabor Dance Studio above The Box. Like Webster, Roa recently came to work to discover he couldn’t get into the building. “They never notify us about things like this," says Roa. "It’s very frustrating.”
Webster says he has complained in vain numerous times to city officials.
“It's complete negligence on the City’s part,” says Webster. “We’re supposed to have 24-hour access to our building and be told in advance what’s happening.”
"We know that The Box has suffered and that they did so for many months before we started this project due to the hotel," says Neighborhood Development chief Jim Tolbert, who says the primary reason for the long delay is that "we have been held hostage by Dominion Virginia power's schedule."
"We have needed to wait on them on more than one occasion," says Tolbert. " Also, we found unknown utilities under the ground that we had to relocate and space is tight."
According to the City’s May construction report the project should have wrapped in May. A foreman on the site for Barton Malow, the design and construction company handling the Second Street project (and which re-bricked the Mall), says the work should finish in about two weeks.
In the meantime, the years of dealing with chaos outside his front door have taken a toll on Webster.
“It’s so frustrating, it’s just eating away at us,” he says. “I feel we’ve been pushed aside and slapped in the face."
Updated 6/14/2010 10:47am