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The InTowner
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”Adams Morgan Businesses Feeling Pain from Construction,” reads the headline of a November 6th news story posted on the Washington Post’s website. For us and the residents and business owners in Adams Morgan and anyone who has been on the neighborhood’s commercial strip along 18th Street this past summer and fall, this is hardly news.

“Proprietors, the Post reported, say the obstructed storefronts, sidewalk closings and parking limitations are driving customers away.” And, in the case of the owner of the Crooked Beat record store, Bill Daly, the article quoted him that “customers can barely get to the store or find parking” with the result that his sales were off by up to 46 percent.

What these merchants want to know is why the city cannot -– or won’t -– compensate them for their losses. The best that the city is willing to offer is the prospect of access to its unfunded $3 million, no-interest Streetscape Loan Relief Fund. Observers knowledgeable about the state of DC finances do not hold out much hope for this option. Anyway, it’s hard to justify steering business owners into more debt at a time when the economy is making their prospects dicey as it is.

Our headline poses an important question and, while the question may be moot with regard to 18th Street or other commercial streets already completed, such as P Street and 17th Street in Dupont Circle, there are many more of these projects on the drawing boards thanks to federal stimulus dollars and other financing already in place, such as, for example, along 14th Street north of Thomas Circle. (See, “Major Streetscape Enhancement Proposals for 14th Street Above Thomas Circle Unveiled by DDOT,” InTowner, October 2010, issue PDF page 1.)

Now, don’t get us wrong. As residents we absolutely love the attractiveness of the completed projects that we have seen. The appearance of the new sidewalks, the planting of new trees, the new street lighting and other ancillary fixtures along the 17th Street neighborhood business strip is definitely more inviting. But do these undertakings actually translate into the retailers, restaurants and other businesses pulling in more customers? Maybe time will tell and maybe on some major streets where tourists might be in evidence it could bring in more customers. But on neighborhood commercial strips like 17th Street we are dubious; the shops and restaurants and bars are for the most part serving the neighborhood and immediate surrounding areas. If the plan is to lure more potential customers from afar, especially to neighborhood commercial streets not well served by Metro, the city would do better to have figured out a way to provide public parking. (But that is a debate for another time.)

Again, let us make it clear: We are not opposed to these projects; we do like them very much. But where we think they have gone wrong is not to have included within their budgets sufficient funding to be used for reimbursing the affected businesses for provable lost sales. One would have thought that after the years-ago debacle with the construction of Metro along U Street and the more recent adverse effect of a streetscape enhancement project on the businesses along P Street west of the Circle, this issue would have been properly addressed and funds included. For the city council to have only recently authorize a paltry $3 million fund that probably will not get funded was not a very helpful approach and certainly counter to the oft-stated claim of the politicians that they are all for creating an environment that will serve to enhance business opportunity and bring in significant new tax revenues to boot.