City News

Worries mounting on Elizabeth Avenue

Store owners in one Elizabeth-area neighborhood say a year of street construction has crippled business, and many are scrambling to find ways to cope, including slashing hours and changing their product offerings.

City crews began working on a one-mile stretch of Elizabeth Avenue in December 2007 as part of an effort to improve the area from the Central Piedmont Community College campus east to Presbyterian Hospital.

The idea was to better balance the needs of transit, motorists, pedestrians and bicyclists.

As part of the construction, crews have been relocating curbs, converting the road to one lane in each direction (with a turn lane at intersections with traffic signals), building bicycle lanes, widening the sidewalks, planting more trees, and installing rail tracks and poles for future streetcar service.

The $9 million project is expected to be finished in April 2009, according to Christopher Jiles, construction supervisor for the city's Engineering and Property Management Division.

Business owners, many of whom were new to the business district, were excited about the plan. But they say the lack of communication from the city, coupled with a slowdown in customers, have caused problems and made them worry about the future.

Trey Wilson opened a restaurant, Customshop Handcrafted Food, one month before the construction started. He said business was initially brisk, but once the orange cones showed up, it quickly plummeted.

Wilson estimates receipts are down 60 percent since he opened. To stay afloat, he has closed the restaurant for lunch, focusing on dinner only.

“It's just crushing us,” Wilson said.

To reach the businesses lining Elizabeth Avenue, potential customers must navigate a street crowded with construction cones, yellow tape and heavy equipment. Red clay coats the street and sidewalks, and patrons often must step over large water hoses to get where they're going.

The situation is even more tenuous at night, when the street is dark because many of the street lights have been temporarily removed.

Business owners said the lack of communication from the city's engineering department has been frustrating because without more information, it has been difficult to devise plans to boost business. Several said they received no updates from city staff about how long the project would last or what construction would occur next.

Some said when they attempted to get information, they were promised calls back, but the calls were not returned. On Oct. 24, business owners e-mailed a complaint to staff and several public officials.

At-large City Council member Anthony Fox said since receiving that e-mail, city staffers have met with several business owners. Fox said he feels confident the communication problems have been resolved.

City engineer Jeb Blackwell was out of the office last week and could not be reached. Jiles, the construction supervisor, said he was unaware of any communication problems.

Restaurant and gift shop NOFO on Liz, open since 2005, recently shrunk its gifts section to make room for a small, Mexican-themed sports bar.

General manager Brandon Hilliard said the business made the change in hopes of drawing more customers. Business is down 20 percent from last year, he said.

“We're constantly getting calls from people who wonder if we're even open because of all the construction,” Hilliard said. “The vision for the area is great, and we want to stick it out. It's just really difficult.”