Shopkeepers ask for crosswalks for access
Posted: January 10, 2013
The Winchester Star
WINCHESTER — Downtown business owners on Wednesday pressed for more places to cross the Loudoun Street Mall while it’s under construction, but city officials didn’t give them much hope that it would happen.
“Until we get the sewer line installed, there’s no way we can do it because you have an eight- to 10-foot wide hole in the middle,” City Manager Dale Iman said at a weekly update meeting on the project. “We may be able to do it afterward. But the contractor says having crosswalks would delay the project.”
Added Perry Eisenach, the city’s public services director: “If we can reasonably do it and it won’t delay the project, we will. We understand how important it is.”
State College, Pa.-based HRI Inc. is being paid $7.1 million to replace underground infrastructure along the pedestrian mall, install a new surface and add ground-level amenities. The project’s cost includes $700,000 for public bathrooms, gateway entrances and a splash pad water feature.
Construction is to be finished by April 30. HRI has until May 31 to complete the landscaping.
It’s the mall’s first major makeover since it was built in 1974, covering about 1,600 feet between Piccadilly and Cork streets.
The construction zone currently begins about five feet from the front of each building. Fencing has been placed around that area to protect pedestrians and construction workers.
That fencing, however, only allows people to walk north and south on the pedestrian mall. The only east-west crossover is near the middle at Boscawen Street.
When asked about doing the work in sections so partial east-west access could be maintained, Eisenach said the project would take eight to 12 months if it were done in a way that would allow that.
“Doing all this work in four months is one heck of an accomplishment for the contractor to achieve,” he said. “In order to do that, there are some things we have to give up, like doing the work in sections.”
Janie Nichols, founder of the mall store Once Upon a Find, the Home of Pewter Pan Gifts and Collectibles, said she understands how the crossovers could affect construction.
“I see them running equipment through there,” she said, “and that would really slow them down.”
The project is having a significant effect on shoppers at some stores. Nichols said foot traffic in her store dropped to 28 people a day from 150 people the same day the previous week.
Brian Lewis, co-owner of the Red Fox Creamery, said people on the west side of the mall aren’t crossing over to the east side to patronize his eatery, and he’s dissuaded from visiting the Dollar General across from him.
Despite the inconvenience, Lewis said weekday sales have been on par with sales in past years because they have a customer base that eats there regularly. However, Saturday was the worst Saturday the store has had since it opened in December 2011.
Some merchants, however, have noticed at least one benefit.
Dorian Brown of Remember YourSelf Massage, who is the new president of the Old Town Winchester Business Association (OTWBA), said merchants have told her that because people are walking closer to storefronts, window-shopping is up.
The meeting drew nine representatives from mall businesses, and several suggested that a public relations campaign is needed to let people know mall businesses are open.
Nichols said customers told her that some people are discouraging visitors from coming downtown.
“They were telling tourists at the hotels, ‘Don’t go down there. Downtown is closed,’” she related. “We want something to say we’re open.”
Downtown Manager Jennifer Bell said she’s spoken with media to make sure that message is out.
Will Moore, who served as the interim downtown manager for several months before Bell started, said the Old Town Development Board’s promotions committee might take the issue up at its next meeting. Brown said the OTWBA has begun such a campaign.
Other suggestions included temporary signs away from the project area — such as along Cameron and Braddock streets — directing people to the mall and banners at its north and south entrances.
City officials said late Wednesday afternoon that they expect most of the work in the Boscawen Street intersection to be completed today. That would allow the street to be reopened except for temporary closures later in the project.
The early focus for the project was getting work around that intersection done so it could be reopened, Eisenach said. Once that’s done, he expects crews to quickly fan out farther along the mall.
Other issues addressed or information provided at the meeting included:
The removal of mall street lights has made it dark at night. Eisenach said the city would see what it can do to improve visibility, but merchants could help by leaving outdoor lights on at night.
A wall-art project is being considered to brighten up the construction fencing.
HRI is responsible for all snow removal on the mall during the project, including the designated pedestrian walkways.
When walkway areas are being worked on, Eisenach said crews will do the work early in the morning or at night when each business is closed to minimize disruption and maintain access.
The alleyway from the Braddock Street Autopark to the mall also might be reopened within a few weeks, he said. The walkway is closed while work is being done on the former Taylor Hotel building.
Meanwhile, one constituency apparently not considered in the project planning process does not appear to be reacting well to the ongoing changes.
“Could there be a pathway for the squirrels,” Carol Miller, director of the Old Court House Civil War Museum, asked in jest, “because they’re really confused. I’m a little bit worried about them.”
— Contact Vic Bradshaw at email@example.com