The Clark Street repaving disaster: how slow can they go? | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

The Clark Street repaving disaster: how slow can they go? 

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One day last spring a work crew started digging up the street outside of Sharon Evans's business. She owns and operates the building that houses the Live Bait Theater and Nightcrawler Cafe at 3914 N. Clark. "It was a Wednesday," says Evans. "I figured, great, they'll be done and gone before our weekend rush."

The end of March came and went, but the crew never left. In fact, they and crews from different utilities have been there ever since, lining the street with their trucks, rattling windows with their heavy machinery, tearing up the street, and, most important to Evans, chasing away customers. Word is they'll be around for at least another month as well.

Summertime construction nightmares are nothing new in Chicago, but city officials and business owners agree that this project has caused more inconvenience than most. It's part of the city's Clark Street repavement project, an ambitious $4 million effort to repair the 21-block stretch of North Clark between Barry and Foster.

"We've had our share of headaches due to construction projects over the years," says Alderman Helen Shiller, whose ward includes most of the area hardest hit by the project. "But this one is chaos--sheer chaos. I only hope we learn from our mistakes."

By all accounts the project got off to a decent start, when work crews zipped up Clark from Barry to Addison, finishing that segment in only five or six weeks. "Part of our urgency was to get Addison completed by the start of the Cubs season," says Tim Martin, an engineer with the city's Department of Transportation who is overseeing the project. "But we also had an advantage in that first stage because the project was relatively straightforward. We were really only repaving the street."

North of Addison, however, the project got more complicated as efforts were coordinated to repair sewer, electrical, water, cable, and, most significant, gas systems.

"When resurfacing is done properly, there's a lot more to do than pave the street," says Shiller. "We repave sidewalks and replace streetlights and gas mains and water lines and cable lines. That means you have to oversee the gas company, the sewer department, the water department, the bureau of electricity, Streets and Sanitation, Illinois Bell--I hope I haven't forgotten anyone. Oh yes, the cable TV company."

In April city work crews dug an eight-foot trench on the west side of Clark Street near its three-way intersection with Grace and Racine. They hoped to complete underground infrastructure repairs, repave streets and sidewalks, and be working north of Irving Park by June. Well into July that trench was still there.

"First they dug it, then they filled it in," says Rod Abramson, who owns the Sunshine Feed Store, a pet-food store at 3812 N. Clark. "Then they dug it up again. All in all, they dug and filled that thing four times. I couldn't see them doing any work other than digging and filling. They'd just dig it, let it sit there for a week or so, and fill it in. It was the most pitiful thing I ever saw."

In the meantime, Abramson says, Clark Street remained a mess. Not only had it been reduced to one-way traffic, it was cluttered with trucks and heavy equipment. Abramson says business at his store has dropped at least 75 percent since the project began. "We expanded our space from 250 square feet to 900 square feet this year," he says. "We wouldn't have done it if we knew this project was coming."

Abramson's neighbor, Mike Cortez, who owns Deli 38, on the corner of Grace and Clark, had it even worse. Workers dumped a three-foot high mound of dirt outside his front door, and then left it there.

"First they dug up the sidewalks, which made it impossible for people to walk to our stores," says Cortez. "OK, I understand that they're replacing the sidewalk. But why did they have to leave that dirt outside my door for three months? When it rained it was mush. They might as well have put a sign up in front saying, 'Don't come to this man's store.'"

Cortez laid a board over the dirt, as a sort of gangplank into the store. But construction workers told him to remove it. "They said that if I put a board over the dirt and someone falls I can get sued. Otherwise they sue the city, I guess."

The problem, Tim Martin says, is that Peoples Gas kept changing their construction plans.

"Peoples Gas told us they were going to be replacing some gas mains and then they changed their minds," says Martin. "They kept changing their minds every time a different manager or supervisor within the company looked at the plans. We would dig a hole in preparation for their crews and then their crews would never come. So we had to fill the hole. And we end up looking pretty silly.

"After the explosion in the River North area, we have to be very careful about the gas company. If they say they need new mains, we have to respect them. Otherwise, if they have a failure, I'm all over the paper and in trouble."

Peoples Gas officials, however, say they finished their work within a few weeks of starting.

"I talked to the supervisor on that project and he told me that we did all of our work on that project in April," says Ed Joyce, a spokesman for Peoples Gas. "We've been out of there since early May. I don't see how the city can fault us for what's happened."

But Martin says that Peoples Gas was still working on its gas mains near the Racine-Clark-Grace intersection in June. To prove his point, he refers to a June 4 letter acting commissioner J.F. Boyle of the transportation department wrote to Peoples Gas.

"The Peoples Gas Company has now revised its scope of work on Clark Street from Barry Avenue to Foster Avenue for at least the third time," the letter says. "These changes in scope are now presenting serious staging difficulties to the City's contractor. . . . As you should realize Clark Street is a major commercial area for the City and to minimize disruption to businesses is of utmost importance. Commitments made by the City and Contractor to the Community are being negated by the conflicts with the Gas Company.

"We are also being faced with removing new sidewalk on Clark Street in order for service connections to be made. While the City will not pay for replacement the perception to the public shows a lack of coordination."

Peoples Gas gets bad reviews from the merchants, too.

"Peoples Gas was awful," says Abramson. "They had five or six trucks pulled up in front of our business every day. They didn't have to park right there. There's parking places around. I asked them to move, but they wouldn't. We called and called and called Peoples Gas, but got no response. I used to have a nice feeling about them, but no more. They're a bunch of jerks."

Despite his harsh words for the gas company, it was Martin who shouldered most of the criticism at a July meeting at Live Bait that Shiller arranged with local merchants. "It was a very bizarre scene," says John Ragir, Live Bait's executive director. "Martin was all alone onstage with the businesspeople firing questions at him. Most of us were very frustrated. It's been a tough summer."

Some merchants speculate that the delays were Mayor Daley's way of getting even with Shiller, one of the few independents left in the City Council. "I wouldn't be surprised if they were doing this to rattle her cage," says Evans. But Shiller dismisses this theory. "This doesn't have anything to do with politics," says Shiller. "I get along with Martin."

Indeed, at the meeting Martin tried to apologize for the inconveniences. "We tried to be as accommodating as we could," says Martin. "I asked residents what we could do to make things easier and they said open Clark Street to two-way traffic. So we did that. It's caused tremendous backups because of people turning left. We said that would happen. But the people wanted two-way traffic, so we gave it to them.

"We have done projects like this before, but we've never received so many complaints from businesses. I think part of the reason is the recession. People have reduced their markups to a bare minimum and any reduction in business is devastating."

By mid-August, Clark Street should be completely repaved up to Irving Park, says Martin. In the meantime, the merchants south of Irving will have to tough it out.

"People want to avoid Clark Street, so it's not likely they'll come here until it's done even if we advertise," says Evans. "All we can do is send out a mailing when it's done saying, 'Come on back--the disaster project is over.'"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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