Some Not Sticking Around for Santa Monica Remake
By HOWARD FINE
With the start of nearly three years of construction to remake Santa Monica Boulevard on L.A.’s Westside just weeks away, some stores are already closing their doors and moving rather than face a slowdown in their business.
The 30-month, $68 million conversion of “Big” and “Little” Santa Monica boulevards into a single thoroughfare with four lanes in each direction was originally slated to start construction this month.
Although a groundbreaking ceremony is planned for Jan. 31, delays in awarding the contract and lining up permits from various local agencies and utilities have pushed back the start date to March 3. The project contractor warns the March date may also not be met unless the permits are lined up in time.
City officials have pledged to keep traffic flowing on three lanes in each direction throughout the project. They will also help businesses find temporary parking spaces for employees and customers and are preparing signs telling motorists that the shops will be open during construction.
Nonetheless, some business owners are not taking any chances. As their leases come up, they have decided to move to other Westside locations. “Just look at the ‘For Lease’ signs and all that vacant retail space,” said Jay Handal, president of the West Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. “People are running scared.”
One business preparing to close is Planet Rugs at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Glendon Avenue. Earlier this month, owner Nasser Rostami put a huge sign in front of the business that reads: “We Will Soon Be Closing Our Doors Forever.”
“It’s because of the construction,” Rostami said last week. “I just know that once the construction starts, I’m going to lose a lot of business. It’s hard enough holding on right now.”
Dan Kahn, the representative from L.A. Mayor James Hahn’s Business Team assigned to the project, said he was unaware of any businesses leaving the boulevard specifically because of the impending construction.
“People go in and out of business and move their businesses all the time,” Kahn said. “Not one business has told us they are leaving because of the construction.”
Kahn said he and other Business Team reps are walking the boulevard every week, holding monthly meetings with merchant groups and sending mailers to every business address informing them about the project timetable. Also, he said the Business Team is working with specific businesses on posting signs letting passing motorists know those businesses are open during construction.
Three years ago, many businesses closed their doors, while others barely hung on when six miles to the east on Santa Monica Boulevard West Hollywood pushed forward with a 30-month reconstruction project.
In an attempt to avoid a repeat, L.A. city officials decided to have their project proceed in phases, so that only a portion of the 2.5-mile long project zone would be impacted at any given time. They have also held frequent outreach meetings with merchant and business groups.
“Our goal is to minimize the disruption to local businesses and residents,” said Cora Jackson-Fossett, spokeswoman for the L.A. city Department of Public Works.
But businesses are skeptical of city reassurances and the two-month delay in the start date is making them nervous, Handal said. “How can we be sure there won’t be further delays or that the impact won’t be worse than what they’re saying?” he said.
Jackson-Fossett said the main reason for the delay was the city’s decision to put some amendments in the construction contract to ensure that the project causes minimal disruption to the neighborhood. As a result, the contract with Long Beach-based Excel Paving Co. wasn’t even awarded until last Dec. 24.
But Excel Paving project manager Bob Pace said there were also problems on the city’s end in getting permits for utility relocations and the like.
“One of the things we’ve been running into is that a lot of permits still need to be pulled by the utility companies,” Pace said. “And we only just got our permit from the California Department of Transportation to do work on the freeway ramps this past Friday (Jan. 17).
Once the project gets started, though, Pace said he expects the work to be on schedule and complete within 900 days. “There’s an incentive program built in where we get $12,500 a day for every day we come in early, up to 80 days,” Pace said. “It’s our plan to finish 80 days early and claim that $1 million incentive.”
If Excel Paving does finish early, the project could be wrapped up by May 2005.
But that’s a long way off to residents and businesses who must put up with more than two years of construction.
Besides access to storefronts, another major concern is how traffic will be rerouted to avoid gridlock. Jackson-Fossett said city officials are now finalizing that plan, and they are trying to keep traffic off residential streets.
One advantage L.A. officials will have that West Hollywood didn’t is that this stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard is much wider. “In West Hollywood, there were at most two lanes in each direction and even that was blocked at times,” said Jackson-Fossett. “We will have three lanes flowing in each direction at all times.”
Although most of the work will be done during daytime hours, Pace warned that there might be occasional late-night closures. Also, many motorists trying to get from the San Diego (405) Freeway to Century City and points east (or vice versa) will no doubt choose other routes to avoid the construction.
The two closest major east-west thoroughfares, Wilshire and Olympic boulevards, are already choked with traffic.
“We do have concerns about cut-through traffic through residential neighborhoods,” said Lisa Hansen, spokeswoman for city Councilman Jack Weiss. “We’re going to make sure that signs are up saying that all lanes on Santa Monica Boulevard are open to traffic and we will try to direct traffic away from residential streets.”