The Georgetown mini-dig is done.
More than five years after an epidemic of exploding manholes prompted an overdue overhaul, the District's oldest neighborhood has a thoroughly modern circulatory system. History still rings from colonial-era townhouses and back-street cobblestones, but the gadgetry that lies underneath can be positively futuristic. And a manhole hasn't popped since February 2003.
New cables, bound like licorice whips, connect to shiny switch boxes to form a system that boasts a more efficient and larger electrical capacity than the old one. Ducts for future expansion of communications connections wind through the subterranean passageways. Water mains have been resealed, and fresh concrete has been poured for about 100 new manholes.
Ken Gray, executive director of the Georgetown Partnership, the neighborhood's business improvement district, likened the joint effort among electric, gas, sewer, water and phone companies to "pulling the Band-Aid off in one hurtful yank."
"There's nothing sexy about utility lines and manholes and sewer lines," Gray said.
Even so, players in the team effort and residents agreed that the project looks like a success. With a few qualifications, residents acknowledged that the protracted operation went as smoothly -- if not as quietly -- as could be expected.
"We jammed 15 years of infrastructure work into four years," said Skip Newcombe, Pepco's project manager. "We weren't going to have a 'Big Dig,' " a roads-and-tunnels project in Boston that finished years late and billions of dollars over budget.
The jackhammers, asphalt-crunching backhoes and dump trucks converged on Georgetown in October 2001 after a months-long cluster of "manhole events" caused by underground smoke and fires. In February 2000, a lunchtime explosion near several businesses on M Street sent three manhole covers flying 30 feet in the air. About 16 months later, businesses lost a total of at least $1 million when a power outage paralyzed key parts of the Northwest neighborhood for four days.
"The system was failing. [The underground overhaul] had to be done," said Bill Starrells, an advisory neighborhood commissioner. "Thank goodness nobody was hurt before this was done."
And as long as the electrical work needed to be done, representatives of the other utilities agreed the time was right for a complete rehab. Working from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. five days a week, crews tore up key blocks of the neighborhood's two main thoroughfares: first M Street and then Wisconsin Avenue. By first light in the mornings, dug-up stretches were covered with steel plates.
But residents were not pleased by the cacophony of destruction and construction work.
"I've definitely sat bolt upright in bed at 3 o'clock in the morning," said Joseph Kerr, 36, who lives a block west of Wisconsin Avenue, down the street from his hat shop, the Proper Topper. The "horrible" predawn racket shook the windows and cracked the paint on the exterior of his P Street home, he said.
Adilson Jardim and his wife, Emily, couldn't take it anymore. After sleeping pills and earplugs failed to help, they sued in late 2001, contending that the city had violated its own noise statutes outside their M Street apartment. Then they moved to Old Town Alexandria, where they said life is much quieter. The Jardims settled their lawsuit but declined to disclose details as part of the settlement agreement.
"We decided to move because of the circumstances we were in," Adilson Jardim said.
Businesses also felt the pain.
Late one night in June, as milling machines ground the pavement along the 1400 block of Wisconsin Avenue to prepare for a final layer of asphalt, Sam Elissawy stood alone outside his business, Cappucino's Pizza, and chatted on a cell phone. He has spent plenty of nights alone in the pizzeria during the past 18 months as work crews all but eliminated walk-up traffic at night. And deliveries suffered, too; his drivers found it tough to complete their rounds at night.
The overhaul wound up taking longer and costing more than forecast, as construction projects tend to. The timetable was extended by a year after project managers and residents agreed to move night-time traffic onto Wisconsin Avenue during construction there, instead of routing cars onto residential streets.
That helped boost the project's price tag from the estimated $40 million to somewhere north of $50 million, although officials said final budget numbers will not be available until September. The cost also rose as the project moved ahead of schedule and expanded its scope to include new pedestrian crosswalk signal lights and repairs to more water pipes, officials said.
But life in Georgetown's commercial core is looking up.
All that remains of the construction project are the contractors' final invoices and lingering memories of inconvenience. The completion ceremony and celebration are scheduled for Wednesday.
In the exploding-manhole era, Richard McGlothlin said his mordant sense of humor led him to stand atop the circular metal plates, waiting to be launched skyward. The 15-year resident of Prospect Street never went airborne, but these days, Verizon representatives have been banging on his door, urging him to upgrade to a high-speed Internet connection.
His strolls through the neighborhood are more pleasant, thanks to streetscaping improvements that include new brick sidewalks along M Street and Wisconsin Avenue and Victorian-style streetlights complete with hanging baskets bursting with pink blooms. Individual parking meters along the block have been replaced by electronic parking stations, which dispense receipts for vehicles at a single location. The cosmetic touch-up prompted nearly as much debate as the utility work.
"This is NIMBY central," McGlothlin said, referring to the "not in my back yard" attitude he said the neighborhood's change-wary residents often adopt.
But all in all, he conceded, "There seemed to be the least amount of disruptions you could have."
Georgetown's new hardware and improved look also have had a financial impact, Gray said. In prime locations, the price of leased retail space has doubled since the overhaul began, and the neighborhood's vacancy rate is at an all-time low.
Three years ago, George Behestian, owner of the Italian restaurant Fino, was ready to leave M Street. Before the project began, he lost $30,000 during a power outage. After work got underway, he had to shut down his jazz trios early before jackhammers drowned out their sound. He opened a second restaurant in Great Falls.
Today, Fino is still in Georgetown, although it moved a few doors down the street. It's the Great Falls restaurant that has closed.
"We are happy for [the project]; all of them did a good job," Behestian said. "The street looks better, cleaner, nicer."
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.