Streetscape work makes Adams Morgan an obstacle course

For a year, work on the streets of Adams Morgan has made the neighborhood an obstacle course of Jersey barriers, orange pylons and yellow caution tape.

Workers are in the final phase of the $6.5 million project, which officials hope will be finished by early summer. City officials said once complete, it will make Adams Morgan a greener, more pedestrian-friendly community.

But getting through the months of construction has been painful, many neighborhood merchants said. Business is down. Even in the areas where new sidewalks have been installed and the bulldozers have moved away, business has not returned to pre-construction levels, they said.

“It’s very, very difficult,” said James Nixon, co-owner of Toro Mata, a gallery featuring Peruvian art. “You look up and down the streets, and some days it’s a ghost town.”

Nixon has an excellent view of the work — or some might say chaos — from the window of his shop. In recent days, he’s had plenty of time to watch the construction since customers have been few and far between, he said.

Work is now concentrated on 18th Street between Kalorama and Columbia roads NW, the heart of the neighborhood’s commercial district. Many of the area’s most popular and well-known businesses, including Madam’s Organ, Tryst and Amsterdam Falafel, are along this stretch.

Construction workers, bulldozers and other heavy equipment have replaced the cars that used to park along the street. A long stretch of black asphalt has been torn out, exposing the light brown dirt below as workers prepare to repave the road. The sound of jackhammers and the buzz of heavy equipment fill the air during much of the day.

With newly redeveloped areas of the city such as H Street NE, U Street NW and Penn Quarter drawing nighttime crowds, even the most pessimistic merchants acknowledge that the neighborhood was in desperate need of a facelift. That hasn’t made coping with the construction any easier, but it has forced businesses to become creative.

“Don’t let anything stand between you and your fries!” reads the sign in front of Amsterdam Falafel. “. . . crawl right over those construction guys.”

“Yes, we think the streetscape is great, but it’s like getting a root canal,” said the shop’s owner Arianne Bennett.

Nixon, the gallery owner, said daytime revenue has dropped by half. The gallery used to be open from noon to 8 p.m. Now, Nixon said, he and business partner Hector Zarate open at 9 a.m. and stay as late as midnight.

He and other merchants are considering new strategies. Some want to offer free shoe shines for patrons willing to navigate the mess for a meal or some shopping.

City officials said they have kept business owners and residents up to date on the project. A Web site offers weekly information about upcoming construction work and a place to submit comments or ask questions. A full-time community liaison meets regularly with community members to update them on the project’s progress.

Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership, said wider sidewalks, new streetlights and bike-friendly amenities will replace the narrow sidewalks, bad lighting and leaky pipes that have become unfortunate features of the popular night-life destination. In an attempt to counter construction fatigue, the association recently published a fact sheet reminding business owners that the end is near.

Barden noted that despite the construction, several new businesses have moved in, including eight on 18th Street. And with two residential projects and a hotel slated to break ground this year, she said, there is reason to be hopeful.

1 of 6 streetscape projects

After seven years of planning, the District Department of Transportation broke ground on the $6.5 million project last March. The work in Adams Morgan is one of six streetscape projects scheduled to be completed this year, according to DDOT officials. About 80 percent of the money for the Adams Morgan project came from the federal government, with the city picking up the remaining costs. The last time similar work was done in Adams Morgan was in the 1920s, city officials said.

“I made it clear, this was going to be a major trip to the dentist,” said D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). “It’s not something that happens with a wave of the magic wand.”

Still, Graham said he’s sympathetic. Last year, he pushed to establish a $7 million fund to help small businesses affected by streetscape construction, only to see the funding cut because of budget issues. In its place, city officials established a program offering no-interest loans to businesses affected by streetscape work. About $2.7 million is available.

Business owners said the loans — if they’re able to get them — will help. They want to be optimistic, but some days it’s hard to be upbeat.

‘I try to stay positive’

On a recent afternoon, Bardia Ferdowski just finished serving lunch to a group of out-of-owners who had navigated the caution tape and construction barriers for a taste of his alligator gumbo. Mardi Gras was a rare good night at his New Orleans Cafe on 18th Street, he said. The rest of the days have been hit or miss.

Ferdowski frets about the lack of parking. The streetscape work has temporarily eliminated most of the parking spaces on 18th. Even when the streetscape project is completed, there will be 18 fewer street parking spaces. There is a garage nearby, but it’s pricier than street parking.

But after 20 years, he’s grown accustomed to the ups and downs associated with running a small business.

“I try to stay positive and let all the negative thoughts disappear,” Ferdowski said with a sigh. “So next year, come back and I will tell you better stories.”

 
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