Although there are still a couple of final touches left to complete the $2.4 million streetscape overhaul on East Burlington Street in downtown Riverside, Sept. 9 essentially marked the completion of the seven-month project.
Crews completed work on the four high-visibility, stamped-asphalt crosswalks while others planted flowers and other perennials in the new, raised planters that dot the streetscape.
The mahogany brown brick paver sidewalks still look almost pristine and new benches invite pedestrians to sit a spell and give the improvements a longer look.
“Aesthetically, I think it turned out just the way we thought,” said Village President Ben Sells
Work continues toward completion at a pair of restaurants — Sawmilly, a gourmet sandwich shop that’s a sister business to The Chew Chew, and La Barra, an ambitious high-end casual pizza/Italian cuisine eatery that will anchor the business district’s western gateway in the Village Center building — on either side of Burlington Street.
Sells said there are tentative plans for a formal “street opening” event perhaps in mid- to late-October to mark the completion of the high-profile improvements, the first major redo of the central business district in more than 30 years.
And yet, business owners and managers who weathered the construction project say the disruptive project noticeably impacted their bottom lines.
Summer is usually a slower season over at Riverside Foods, with many of the store’s customers heading off to vacation. But this summer was slower still, said co-owner Peter Boutsikakis.
“It was an extremely difficult summer for us,” said Boutsikakis, whose business wasn’t helped by three power outages in July and August that cost the store an estimated $11,000 in revenue.
Boutsikakis said that, compared to other summer seasons, Riverside Foods’ business was down about 10 percent in 2016.
Over at Aunt Diana’s Old Fashioned Fudge, a mainstay on the street for nearly 40 years, manager Patty Miglore was blunt.
“We’ve lost 3,000 customers from the time construction started until now,” Miglore said. “It’s an issue.”
She tracks customers year over year, and since March 14 when construction started, foot traffic into the store has evaporated. Between March 14 and Mother’s Day — a time frame that also includes the important Easter holiday — Miglore said the business had 1,300 fewer customers compared to 2015.
And though construction on the south side of Burlington Street has largely been complete for some weeks, the foot traffic has not reappeared.
“I have not seen a comeback,” Miglore said. “Usually after school we’re mobbed. They’re not here. I don’t know what that means.”
Miglore doesn’t dislike the improvements made to the business district, but she’s not sure of its potential impact moving forward.
“I’m willing to give it a try,” she said, “but I don’t think it’ll do that much for business.”
Another longtime business owner on the south side of Burlington Street, however, was philosophical. Even early in the construction timeline, Bill Paganis of Salon Elia was steeling himself for a temporary downturn. But he emphasized the temporary part.
“There’s a beginning and end to everything,” Paganis said.
He also believes the improvements might draw new customers and businesses to the village. Paganis pointed to La Barra, under construction across the street to the north, as proof.
“That corner was vacant nine years. Why? Because people thought it was a bad investment,” Paganis said. “I compliment whoever started this project. Maybe people will start coming to town and start supporting all these businesses.
“I’m happy about it. There’s no way this could hurt my business.”
Boutsikakis said he wasn’t sure what impact the improvements would have in the future, but he admitted they are a “much-needed upgrade. There’s much more public space to enjoy.”