This week marks one month since the streetscape project started on East Burlington Street in downtown Riverside. And the verdict among business owners on the street is that the disruption is about what was advertised going into the project.
Yes, the work has affected business, especially where walk-in traffic is concerned. But business owners still expressed support for the project, saying they’d simply have to grit their teeth and hope for the best until the work is complete.
“It is what it is,” said Bill Paganis of Salon Elia at 5 Longcommon Road. “When there’s construction, you know there’s a beginning and an end. When it’s over it’ll be beautiful.”
Work on the streetscape portion of the project, which includes new, and in some areas wider brick paver sidewalks, raised planting beds, benches and trees, is expected to wrap up in late summer. After the project in the downtown business district is complete, the roadway itself will be resurfaced from Longcommon Road to Harlem Avenue.
Construction started April 14 on the south side of Burlington Street, wrapping around the corner to the south on Longcommon Road. The sidewalk area closest to the street has been removed and deep holes have been excavated where the raised planters will be located.
According to Sonya Abt, the village’s community development director, the holes are that deep to allow workers to pour the footings necessary to support the weight of the above-ground planting beds, which will be made from concrete and faced with natural stone.
Water lines that will irrigate the planters need to be placed below the frost line, Abt said, and electrical conduit is being run to the planters to power the lighting that will be part of the structures.
Officials decided to start the project on the south side of Burlington Street, where most of the pedestrian-oriented retail businesses are located, in the spring in order to have that side of the street largely complete before summer.
Then work will progress from west to east along the north side of the street. And while the south side will be relatively clear for visitors by summer, there’s another four months or so of work ahead, and business owners are hoping customers won’t stay away because of the construction.
In just a month, however, a decrease in business has been noticeable.
“Without a doubt it’s had an impact,” said Scott Zimmer, owner of The Chew Chew restaurant at 33 E. Burlington St.
Zimmer, who also hopes to open a smaller casual restaurant called Sawmilly, at 35 E. Burlington Street later this spring, placed a sign in the window of The Chew Chew, reminding anyone driving past that it is open for business.
But Zimmer said he’s also been heartened by the response to the construction by his regular customers, who keep coming despite the temporary loss of street parking on the south side of the street and the ongoing work.
“Our guests are more worried about us than we are about ourselves, and that’s good because it means they care about us,” said Zimmer.
Zimmer said his goal for getting through the project is to be able to retain his employees. But, he’s already had to let one employee go due to the loss of sales volume.
“My number-one priority is to maintain my staff,” Zimmer said.
Despite the setbacks, Zimmer said he supports the streetscape effort.
“We believe in what they’re trying to do,” Zimmer said. “I’d rather see the effort to improve the downtown area and cooperate in that rather than trade negative energy about it.”
Business owners were aggravated by one particular snafu shortly after construction began, when East Burlington Street was closed for about a week. While the street was shut down east of the downtown, between Delaplaine and Cowley Road, a sign placed at the corner of Longcommon and Burlington indicated that street was closed downtown.
The reason for that, according to Abt was because police wanted to keep trucks on Longcommon and Riverside Roads and prevent them from needing to make a tight turn from Burlington or Quincy streets onto Cowley Road in order to cross the railroad tracks.
But it also had the effect of scaring potential business customers away.
“The assumption was Burlington was closed and it held people back,” said Peter Boutsikakis, co-owner of Riverside Foods at 48 E. Burlington St. “But the village responded right away. If we keep open lines of communication, I think we can prevent those kinds of things.”
Easter is one of the big holidays over at Aunt Diana’s Old-Fashioned Fudge at 29 E. Burlington St. If you come to buy your Easter candy after Palm Sunday, it’s usually slim pickings, said store manager Patty Miglore. That wasn’t so much the case this year, however.
“Usually by Palm Sunday we’re running low on Easter candy,” said Miglore. “This year we did not. We didn’t end up doing too badly, but I would have liked to have done more.”
And while it typically slows down between Easter and Mother’s Day, Miglore said she’s noticed fewer school kids walking in after school in the afternoon for a quick treat. Most people avoid the construction area, preferring to walk along the north side of the street, where the sidewalks and the parking remain intact.
Kevin Schamber, co-owner of Empanadus at 7 E. Burlington St., said he’s also noticed a decline in walk-in traffic, but said it really hasn’t affected the business’ catering operation and takeout business. Despite the parking ban in front of his store, takeout customers still pull up there while they run inside to get their food.
Schamber is also looking forward to a new pizza place opening up across the street in the Village Center building and another rumored business at the vacant former Coveny Lane building on the north side of the street.
“We’ll benefit from what’s going on,” Schamber said. “More traffic means more business.”
While Paganis said that his salon’s clients are still coming to get their hair and nails done, the loss of parking in front of the salon and on Burlington had forced him to sometimes improvise to make it easier for his clients to visit.
He personally served as a valet service for one customer, parking her car on Pine Avenue and the retrieving it for her when she left. On one rainy day, he went outside with an umbrella to keep a client dry after she was dropped off.
“It’s a no-brainer for me,” Paganis said. “You do something for someone that you’d like done for yourself.”
Business owners also complained about something no one had any control over — the weather. Since construction started it’s simply been unpredictable and damp.
“That rain on Holy Thursday killed us,” Miglore said.
Zimmer also remarked that the weather, particularly the three-day stretch of April 2 through 4, had been confounding. On April 2, the day alternated between breezy and cool with sunshine to whipping snow squalls. On April 3, temperatures reached 70 degrees but plummeted back into the 30s the following day.
“The weather’s been the biggest factor,” Zimmer said.
As far as the impact on the north side of the street at this point, Boutsikakis said construction hasn’t been too great of a concern although he said the store has ramped up its social media engagement and is trying to remind people to keep coming by.
Once work starts on his side of the roadway, he wants to make sure there’s always access to his parking lot (because the driveway apron is going to be removed and re-poured) and because the parking on the north side of the street will be removed until the project is complete.
“I’ll be excited when it’s all completed,” Boutsikakis said. “But it does make me a little nervous, for sure.”