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DC Must do Better to Alleviate Disruption to Small Businesses During Street Work

We were quite struck by what Washington Post columnist John Kelly reported on March 5th, as slightly edited below:

“The store south of Dupont Circle is called the Proper Topper. . . .

“When employees of the shop — which sells hats, clothing, jewelry, gifts and accessories — arrived . . . [on Saturday, the 2nd] to open up, they found their way blocked by orange cones, construction barriers and a guy in a hard hat with a message: None shall pass.

“The sidewalk in front of 1350 Connecticut Ave. NW was like an open mineshaft. Ladders led down into the chasm. A mobile crane blocked the street.”

The culprit that day, the shop’s proprietor, Anna Fuhrman, told Kelly, was Sprint. But, notwithstanding that their permit authorizing the work required that “applicant shall inform residents and business of intent,” she never was notified.

When we read this we were not one bit surprised. Cavalier plowing ahead with work causing major disruptions (and loss sales income for the day or even longer) is par for the course all over the city. We have reported on this problem in more than one front page news story over the years, like back in February of 2008 about how the P Street project west of the Circle “had caused real hardship while construction was underway, and that the disruption contributed to diminished revenues.” In that case, fortunately, there was a silver lining thanks to in intercession of Historic Dupont Main Streets (HDCMS) which did much to alleviate the potential of even more harm.

But what about businesses –- and for that matter, residential properties — facing risky impediments to ingress and egress, for example? Not all are so fortunate to be in places served by organizations like HDCMS or the Adams Morgan BID which effectively went to bat to mitigate losses on behalf of its 18th Street businesses.

In our November 2011 issue we published an editorial headlined with the question, “Are Streetscape Projects Truly Worth the Business Sales Losses Suffered?” That question is still unanswered to this day; now seems to be a good time to re-visit what we had to say. Accordingly, we set out below portions of we wrote then (slightly updated to reflect that it is now more than seven years later):

“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 . . .   financing already in place. . . .

“. . . 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. . . .

“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 [in 2011] authorize[d] a paltry $3 million fund . . . [for that purpose] 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.”

A major challenge to coping with these projects is often the lack of tightly focused communications protocalls between the city, its contractors, and the affected merchants. Even though progress has been made over the years, it is disturbing to read in Kelly’s report that Anna of the Proper Topper store, despite having reached out to DDOT for explanation, had not yet received any response.

Further, DC project coordinators must be more on top of what is actually likely to be disrupted beyond ingress and egress impediments. For example, the profusion of community events that take over sidewalks and roadways throughout the year must be better anticipated. Reminds us of our reporting at the time that DDOT’s public outreach coordinator for the U Street restoration project did not know that its planned days for closing the street were to be smack dab in the middle of the annual “Dog Days of Summer” huge multi-block and multi-business sidewalk sales event which attracts large numbers of shoppers and accounts for a major cash infusion at a normally slow time for neighborhood retailers.

Ward 5 Councilmember Kenyan R. McDuffie, who chairs the council’s business and economic development committee, on March 5th introduced a bill to provide immediate relief for qualifying small businesses  suffering financial distress from infrastructure projects. We urge the council to enact it without delay.