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June 28, 2012

Church Street Merchants Aren't Digging Construction Project

Church street tear up 012Sweetwaters owner David Melincoff has been watching with trepidation as a disruptive Church Street Marketplace construction project creeps toward his restaurant's front door. And now he's fighting to delay the dig that's scheduled to rip up the pedestrian mall's City Hall block for much of August.

Melincoff collected more than 700 signatures in less than a week on a petition he's circulating — on the social action website, no less — that calls for the lower-block portion of the project to be postponed for a month.

He fears that the noise, dust and unsightliness associated with the electrical rewiring work will hit Sweetwaters hard.

"August is our busiest month of the year," Melincoff explains. It accounts for 17 percent of the restaurant's annual sales and 32 percent of its net income, he calculates. And a majority of summertime diners choose a table on the Church Street portion of Sweetwaters' sidewalk cafe, he says.

"What's happening, in effect, is that they're jackhammering our dining room," Melincoff declares.

Sweetwaters' business will be off by as much as 50 percent as a result, he warns. And that will whack the wait staff right in the wallet, with employees' combined income likely to drop by $60,000 or more, Melincoff says.

Marketplace director Ron Redmond says city officials are striving to mitigate the project's effects up and down Burlington's four-block-long retail epicenter, but suggested it was unlikely the project would be delayed. He notes that work on the Church Street trench stops each weekday at 4 p.m., and construction fencing is scaled back at that time, which means "the outdoor restaurants should be fine for the dinner hours." Construction directly in front of individual outlets on the Marketplace does not last for more than seven business days, Redmond adds.

Church street tear up 018Shops, restaurants and vendors currently or previously experiencing the dig offer varying assessments of its effects.

Some pedestrians were covering their ears as they hurried past Three Tomatoes Trattoria late this morning. A cutting tool was producing an unpleasant smell as well as a piercing whine that ensured most of the restaurant's outdoor tables would remain vacant. Three Tomatoes manager Julia Mattison says she's bracing for a sharp downturn in revenues due to the project that started on her block earlier this week.

Restaurants are being slammed harder than stores, says Marissa Stokes, manager of Ecco, a women's clothing store on the corner of Church and Bank. "But," she cautions, "when people come down here to eat they also shop." Street vendors have suffered too, Stokes adds.

A woman setting up the Hawaiian Shaved Ice stand who declined to give her name says she didn't work at all last week because the dig had eliminated her usual spot on the Marketplace.

But to Sam Longe, manager of furniture store Pompanoosuc Mills, the dig has been no big deal. "There was a little downturn in traffic," he says, "but for a construction project of that magnitude they were pretty quiet and kept it nice and neat."

Church street tear up 016Redmond concedes that the projected six-month-long project is producing headaches for some merchants. "There's never a good time to do this," he says, noting that asphalt plants start shutting down in November, making a fall start-up unfeasible.

Work was initially scheduled to get underway in 2008, but that's when the Great Recession started to bite, Redmond says. By the following year, the vacancy rate had climbed to 11 percent on the Marketplace. "It would have been totally insane to do this project then," he observes. A survey of merchants last year showed sales were "starting to move in a positive direction," so officials decided to start replacing the antiquated electrical wiring system as soon as this past winter ended.

Four-fifths of the $2 million cost is being paid by the feds, with the city's capital budget covering the rest. The installation of a far more efficient lighting system should be completed by November, Redmond says.

Sweetwaters owner Melincoff says he appreciates the efforts being made by the Marketplace and especially by Mayor Miro Weinberger's office, which, he says, has been "extraordinarily responsive." Melincoff insists, "I'm not trying to be obstructionist. I recognize the importance of the project, and I'm willing to have it happen here in September, October, November — just not in August."

He offers this analogy: "Would University Mall jackhammer up their floors in the middle of the Christmas season?"

Photos by Kevin J. Kelley

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