To the joy of most businesses, Pacific Avenue’s makeover will take a hiatus during holidays

Staff writerNovember 13, 2013 

Andrew Falaniko drops potted plant starts Tuesday into one of the many new rain gardens being constructed to handle rainwater from Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. Behind him, another worker installs new lighting fixtures that dangle from wires over the street.

PETER HALEY/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As the holiday season draws near, downtown Tacoma businesses are hoping the latest Pacific Avenue construction project will be mostly finished by its scheduled completion date, Nov. 27.

Angela Bennett, manager of Learning Sprout Toys, said the construction has been a “really rough road” for her store. Blocked-off sidewalks and streets made it difficult for customers to find parking and the store entrance.

“We’re a toy store,” she said. “If people have to drive around the block twice to park, they’re just going to move on.”

The streetscape project affects a 10-block strip of Pacific Avenue between South Seventh and 17th streets. The project includes right-of-way improvements, new overhead street lighting and new stormwater treatment.

Contractors began work in January to minimize the impact on local businesses during the holiday rush. There will be no major construction between Nov. 28 and New Year’s Day, according to the city of Tacoma’s website. Minor activities, such as installation of sidewalk art, will take place after the New Year.

Federal and state grants provide most of the funding for the $10.5 million project, with the city paying $3.5 million.

One new feature downtown will be rain gardens installed to cleanse stormwater and remove pollutants. The 14 gardens’ plants and soil will filter the water before it flows into the city’s storm pipe. Before the project, water flowed directly from the streets through storm pipes into Foss Waterway.

The plants will provide a “beautiful landscape amenity and soften the downtown hard surfaces,” project manager Mark D’Andrea said. Historic granite curbs salvaged from the city’s landfill will provide additional aesthetics, he added.

Still, Pacific Avenue businesses have felt the impacts of the 11-month project.

Bennett said sales at Learning Sprout Toys have plummeted.

“We’ve had $400 days, we’ve had $200 days,” she said.

For Ken Creech of Johnson-Cox Co., it’s not the construction site hurting his business but the improvements themselves.

Contractors installed a sidewalk in front of the building, blocking the printing business’ old loading zone, and created a smaller loading zone several feet down the street.

In addition, he said, the new sidewalk is made of Italian brick, which can’t handle extreme weight. That means his equipment — including a 10-ton printing press — would have to be dismantled before it could be moved.

“This is the most foolish thing I’ve ever seen,” Creech said. “They’ve about destroyed any chance we have of moving equipment.”

“We get the feeling they don’t want us down here,” Creech said.

Contractors say they are trying to ease the effects on local businesses as much as possible.

The city’s Public Works Department sent out weekly email updates on the construction to let businesses know what to expect. And it installed green signs, to stand out from the orange construction signs, to advertise that businesses were still open.

Officials also organized monthly talks to allow business owners to meet with the contractors and Public Works staff members to discuss their concerns. Representatives from about 15 businesses regularly attended the talks.

The city had received nothing but positive feedback on the talks, said Debbie Bingham of the Community and Economic Development Department.

“People really appreciate the communication,” she said. “Even if they don’t like what we have to say, they appreciate being told.”

Bennett said the contractors were extremely responsive to her concerns. They installed grating when the sidewalk in front of her store was torn up to make it easier for strollers to get in. They also rescheduled the paving nighttime instead of during business hours.

Still, several customers complained to Bennett that they had gotten parking tickets while shopping at the store. Bennett said she thought the city would only issue warnings while the street was under construction.

“It is an inconvenience for us,” she said, “but I know it’ll look nice when it’s finished.”

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