SOLANA BEACH — The long-planned renovation project currently under way along a 1-mile stretch of Coast Highway 101 came with assurances the improvements would increase business along the corridor.
But that promise is doing little to assuage the current fears of some merchants who say revenues are down so much they’ve been forced to lay off employees or cut their hours.
“There are a lot of small-business people who are hurting,” said Chris Tatum, who’s owned Do-it-Yourself Dog Wash on Plaza Street for 15 years. “I’m not sure how much longer some of us can hold on. I don’t think (city officials) understand the impacts.”
Charles Pinady, the manager at Yummy Yogurt, is essentially the only employee at his shop. “Business has gone down dramatically,” he said. “I had to cut my staff (of two) to see if we could ride it out. We need the city to step it up.”
Jackhammer noise made summer camps at Art a la Carte difficult because the studio is outside, manager Lisa Creagan said.
“The construction has definitely kept some people from planning birthday parties, which is a big part of our business,” she said. “We haven’t had to let anyone go but we’re doing a lot of explaining to our customers. It’s definitely been slower.”
Pizza Port is still making a “decent profit,” according to manager Torie Bell, but “we’re not seeing the trend of increased sales every month like we have been for the last few years.”
The situation has gotten so bad for some in the four months since the project began that Tatum and a few other business and property owners started a petition.
“I just wanted to see some action,” said Tatum, who was also threatening legal action against the city but acknowledges the project will likely be finished before a lawsuit is settled.
Council members have been talking about improving the corridor since the 1990s and, in the past three years, held several public meetings and workshops. Groundbreaking took place in front of Do-it-Yourself Dog Wash on June 27, and the Highway 101 Merchants Association held a kick-off party this summer at Java Depot to advertise the project.
City Manager David Ott said every business along the roadway received an informational flier and he walked the highway and personally talked to every property owner with a driveway that would be moved.
Despite those efforts, some owners have criticized the city for a lack of information before the project started and as it is progressing.
Creagan, whose business has only been on the 101 since 2010, said she recalls receiving a vague letter explaining when the project would be completed.
Bell said her predecessor at Pizza Port knew about the improvements but city officials weren’t “as clear as they should have been.”
A twice-monthly newsletter was recently created and hand-delivered to all business on Oct. 30. Future publications will be posted on the kiosk on Plaza Street and the city website. It will also be distributed via email to those who sign up.
Merchants said they were also upset to see crews onsite for only eight hours a day and perhaps four days a week.
“They should be working longer hours because the more they extend this, the longer we’ll be affected,” Bell said.
Glen Bullock, with contractor Dick Miller Inc., said his bid was based on an eight-hour day.
At one point, council members discussed funding overtime.
Ott said work hours were extended but the time change and light and noise impacts on nearby residential neighborhoods limit the opportunities for longer work days.
However, one night of construction is scheduled in about two weeks and crews will work some Saturdays, Ott said.
“As spring rolls around we’ll extend our hours again,” he said.
Ott also noted workers were leaching the dirt in the medians because of high salt content.
“So it may have looked like they weren’t working but they had to leach the soil before they could plant the trees,” he said.
“We need parking, not trees,” said Tatum, who leases his dog-wash space and owns the three-unit building that houses Art a la Carte. “This affects so many people. Their priority should be to get the road, sidewalks and parking back in so we can at least have a Christmas.”
Construction costs are estimated at $7 million. To fund the project, Solana Beach took advantage of a financing plan offered by the San Diego Association of Governments in 2011.
SANDAG issued federal Build America Bonds and allowed cities to use their TransNet money to make payments.
Solana Beach borrowed $5.5 million at 3.8 percent interest. Total interest that will be paid during the 38-year loan is about $10.8 million, but approximately $3.8 million of that will be paid by a federal subsidy, bringing the cost to the city to about $12.5 million.
In addition to improving aesthetics, installing 11 gathering places, increasing pedestrian and bicycle safety and adding parking spaces, Ott said the project includes “severely needed” repairs to existing infrastructure such as roadway and sidewalk pavement and deteriorated storm drain facilities.
The city’s sanitation fund has healthy reserves, but that money can’t be used for storm drains, Ott said.
Although the project isn’t slated for completion until fall 2013, Tatum said he was told parking and accessibility to businesses will be restored by January.
“That sits well with me,” Pinady said. “I’d give that a thumbs up.”
“That would be fair but if it exceeds that a lot of people are going to be in trouble,” said Tatum. “My rent is $6,000 a month. I’ve got to wash a lot of dogs to cover that.”