Jennings Brody is frustrated and overwhelmed by construction-related surprises.
“It’s hard enough to start a new business without having to advocate for your rights on the street,” said Brody, who owns Parker and Otis on Duke Street near Brightleaf Square and Chet Miller, a shop downtown on Parrish Street.
As Wexford Science + Technology transforms the Chesterfield cigarette plant into a modern office building, Duke Street is often turned into one lane.
“At no time have I ever been alerted to these traffic diversions,” Brody said.
Brody opened retail store Chet Miller about seven months ago and is working to open a children’s store Tiny next door sometime this summer. The stores are across the street from the under-construction, 27-story One City Center and adjacent to the former Jack Tar Motel, which is being renovated into a hotel. Due to those projects, Parrish Street has been converted to one way and part of the sidewalk has been closed.
“Again with no warning I lost the loading zone, three parking spaces and all visibility from the Corcoran Street direction,” she said.
More recently Brody and other owners were informed that Parish Street would be closed for about week, which included a Saturday.
“If we were shut down just one weekend it could mean that we would not meet our payroll obligations,” Ron Graff, owner of Parrish Street bakery Loaf, wrote to the City Council, objecting to the closure schedule “This is unacceptable to us, particularly given that the issue appears to be one of mere scheduling.”
Brody and Graff are among a handful of business owners who say they have been hurt financially and not notified before parking places are eliminated and streets are closed during construction. The situation is just the latest growing pain in downtown Durham as small businesses continue to fill renovated buildings that line downtown streets and larger companies transform landmarks that have been vacant for years or build new buildings to meet a growing demand.
Brody and others want a clear, written, city policy that defines how street closings are handled. The process should include input from business and property owners and adequate notice, as well as contingency plans if weather delays a closing.
City’s Traffic Operations Engineer Phil Loziuk said different situations calls for different actions.
“It depends on the scale of the project, the scale of the activity, why the street is being close and for how long,” he said.
On Parrish Street, Armada Hoffler Construction, the company building One City Center, submitted a request for a street closure to the city. Loziuk said there typically is a conversation with businesses and residents to coordinate the closure, he said. Ultimately, it is up the contractor to notify the affected businesses and individuals, and there are no requirements about when to give the notice.
Stephanie Maheu, spokeswoman for Armada Hoffler Construction, said the project manager typically only notifies property owners.
“So whether they notify their tenants is really up to them,” Maheu said.
After a recent request to close Parrish Street, Loziuk said, he emailed businesses and others proposing some dates.
“It is to create a dialogue and hear back from the businesses,” he said.
Business owners interpreted that initial email as a final decision about the closing and objected with letters to the City Council. Loziuk then polled some of the business owners and set new dates. As the dates were shifted to address concerns, the information didn’t make it to all the business owners, including Adrian Fletcher, co-owner of Seven Stars Cycle on Parrish Street.
Fletcher found out by word-of- mouth that the downtown street his bicycle business is on would be closed less than 24 hours before it was supposed to happen.
“I have not yet officially been notified of this closure,” said Fletcher on a Friday about a Saturday morning closure.
Appropriate notice is key to businesses notifying customers and adjusting their staffing schedules, owners said.
Meanwhile, Duke Street is a state road. Mark Craig, district engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation, said the state agency is generally notified when construction projects begin and end, but not for every lane closure. There are no related notification requirements, he said.
City Manager Tom Bonfield said he thought the city had changed its notification procedure following business owners concerns about downtown construction to replace aging water pipes. But Deputy City Manager Keith Chadwell said that is a different process. Still, Chadwell said, city officials are learning some lessons as downtown has evolved and created situations in which the intensity and size of construction has increased in a tight environment.
“We will do something as formal as we can get it so that the communication and the engagement is appropriate,” Chadwell said. “We are certainly assessing everything they said and all those concerns they have made. I want to be responsive.”