Staff Reporter

Some businesses have already closed their doors after deciding they won't be able to make it. Others are expecting plunges in business after July 1, when West Hollywood begins the biggest public works project in its 15-year history.

When it's all done 20 months later, the snake-like patchwork of cracked pavement and sidewalks along a three-mile stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard will be transformed into a smooth, inviting stretch of urban highway complete with badly need left-turn lanes.

The question is whether merchants can survive the months of disruption.

"If people can't get to you, it doesn't matter how great you are," said Dean Wilson, vice president and general manager of Koontz Hardware, which has sold everything from axes to dinner plates for 61 years.

"It can really impact us. Most of our customers say, 'Don't worry.' One said he'd walk through a sewer pipe to get to us, but you know how people are. They say something and then they find another store."

West Hollywood officials insist the concerns aren't falling on deaf ears.

"There's no way of doing a project like this without impacting the city. But, we've got to keep the long-range perspective in mind," said Mayor John Heilman. "We don't want to lose businesses, but the reality is, businesses will be lost. There's no way we can be a guarantor of business success. We have businesses that are marginal, and if it weren't for the construction, a bad heat wave could put them out."

The city is handling the project after Caltrans relinquished authority over the stretch of Route 66 from La Brea Avenue to Doheny Drive. The state has provided $8.6 million while the city is kicking in another $7.4 million for the project, which includes narrowing the central median from 45 to 14 feet, widening the 10-foot sidewalks to 20 feet, and planting 1,000 evergreen, elms and jacaranda trees along the boulevard.

The timing couldn't be worse. Construction is set to begin when as many as 78,000 people flood West Hollywood on summer weekends. Officials also must decide what to do about several major revenue-generating events that occur each year along the boulevard, including the Christopher Street West Gay Pride Festival, Halloween party and Mardi Gras celebration.

"We don't want to paint a Pollyanna picture of what will happen, but we know certain situations can be stimulated to offset the process," said Brad Burlingame, president of the West Hollywood Convention & Visitors Bureau.

So far, the city plans to spend about $600,000 on efforts to ease the impact of construction. In the works are a 24-hour construction hotline that will provide updates and detour suggestions; a Web site with similar information; a 2,000-square-foot office to provide information on the project; increased city shuttle service, and the installation of temporary walkways.

During the project, merchants will be exempt from paying business license taxes, a move that could cost the city as much as $250,000.

"We can't say life won't be any different and we haven't thought of everything, but we want to be responsive and move fast to head off problems," said Ray Reynolds, the city's community development director.

Meanwhile, steps are being taken to speed up the work. A $500,000 incentive will go to the contractor (to be chosen next month) who can finish the job in less than 20 months. The contract will require work hours to run from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. If the day runs long, the contractor will be docked $50 per minute per day. Meanwhile, at least three lanes of the boulevard must be kept open at all times.

In addition, the city wants to start construction at both ends of the street and work inward, tackling small sections rather than tearing up the whole boulevard.

"Not every business will suffer for 20 months. It will be a period of time when construction is nearby the business," said Paul Silvern, a partner at Hamilton Rabinovitz & Alschuler Inc., an economic and policy consulting firm in Los Angeles.

Still, some merchants wonder if anyone will want to sidestep the dirt and rubble to shop or dine along the boulevard.

"I have a feeling people will be walking on the other side of the street and go to another caf & #233;. Why should they deal with the hassle?" said Michael d'Addio, owner of Stonewall Gourmet Coffee, which opened 20 months ago.

Some businesses like Koontz Hardware plan to make it easier for customers by taking phone orders and making deliveries. But other merchants have just called it quits.

"One furniture store across the street from me and a candle shop next to me closed their doors. People didn't think they could make it so they decided not to prolong the torture," said Robaire Boisvert, co-owner of Trash With Class, an antique and consignment store near Sweetzer Avenue.

One Koontz shopper said he would do his best to avoid the boulevard.

"I'll probably go elsewhere and come back when it's over," said Beverly Hills resident Lee Schiller, who shops in the city about three times a week. "I consider my loyalty to West Hollywood pretty good, especially since they don't make it easy to park here. But if they're going to make it intolerable, I'll go elsewhere."

Access is a serious concern at the Ramada West Hollywood, where General Manager Bill Karpiak expects to see a 10 percent drop in business.

"We're not happy with that drop, but we think we can gain it back in the long-term," he said. "We have to incentivize business to offset the inconvenience by having trade-offs with neighboring merchants in terms of dining and shopping."

For now, Boisvert doesn't plan on doing anything but praying.

"I'm scared, but I'm going to take a gamble," he said. "I've been here 21 years and I've survived the earthquake, the riots, the fires we had, so what the hell? What have I got to lose?"

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