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Mean Streets

By Jorge Casuso

April 1 -- In June, when the City hosts the grand opening ceremonies for the new Downtown Transit Mall, merchants will be relieved to put behind them 13 months of living with torn-up streets and sidewalks, closed-off traffic lanes, dust, dirt, noise and lost customers.

That was the price Bayside businesses were asked to pay to usher in what City officials have called a bright new era for Downtown, when the Promenade boom will hopefully trickle to neighboring streets as shoppers stroll up and down the widened, tree-lined sidewalks of the newly completed Transit Mall.

But before the jackhammers and tractors fall silent and the finishing touches are made to the $13 million project, the racket will have picked up in pockets of Downtown and along major arteries that lead to the heart of the City.

This time, merchants are being asked to live with much-needed repairs to Santa Monica's earthquake-battered sewer system and seismically vulnerable parking structures. Failing to bear the brunt of more construction could prove economically disastrous, City officials warn.

"We are still fairly vulnerable," said F.J. Schroeder, the engineer who is in charge of the City's Disaster Recovery Office. "The (parking) structures are not life safety issues, but we want to make sure they're usable and Downtown is not left with condemned structures after an earthquake. Can you imagine what the economic impact would be on the Downtown area if all the parking structures were shut down?

"I understand how frustrating it is," Schroeder said. "People don't want us to construct during the summer. People don't want us to construct during the holidays. We schedule it at a time when it's hopefully not disruptive. To some extent it can be mitigated, but to some extent it can't."

Replacing the City's sewers around the Downtown area is slated to take until the summer of 2003, and retrofitting work on the two Downtown parking structures ready for seismic upgrades likely will last until August. Also in the summer next year, crews will begin to tear down and replace the Main Library on 6th Street and Santa Monica Boulevard.

While the new library goes up, a project to retrofit the California Avenue incline ramp that feeds into PCH (or a possible alternate plan to relocate the ramp to Wilshire Boulevard) could begin as early as the spring of 2004. Also that spring, the City could begin work to expand the pier ramp at the foot of Colorado Avenue.

Bayside officials say they understand the need for the improvements and upgrades. But they still are worried and frustrated enough with what they see as the City's lack of notice and mitigation to fire off a pointed letter in February to City Manager Susan McCarthy calling traffic and congestion Downtown "unbearable" and outlining a series of complaints.

"The Board understands the importance of moving the construction along quickly, but the overall impact of all city projects in the area must be considered when scheduling them," Bayside District Executive Director Kathleen Rawson wrote in the letter dated Feb 4.

"Traffic and congestion are unbearable. The City has done very little to communicate with our drivers about what to expect and alternative routes to take… Signage is poor and must be improved immediately."

City officials said they have worked with Bayside representatives and "bent over backwards" to address the concerns. The City has taken extraordinary measures to mitigate the impacts of construction, said spokeswoman Judy Rambeau.

The measures include placing directional signage and an electronic message board at the freeway exit, encouraging motorists to take 5th instead of 4th Street into Downtown.

The City also has hung banners on freeway overpasses, posted signs directing motorists to public parking structures, explained the project on street signs and in a full page ad in the Los Angeles Times, launched a parking site on the City's Web site and provided a hotline, Rambeau said.

Construction crews have taken unusual steps to ensure that their work does not block access to building entrances during business hours.

"We have maintained every business open, and we have bent over backwards to make sure their customers have had full access," Rambeau said. "We've done everything we can think of."

Still, merchants report losing 30 percent of their business when construction takes place at their doorstep, Rawson said. And they worry that all of Downtown is feeling the crunch as customers increasingly avoid navigating the district's torn-up streets, where lanes have been eliminated and outlawed left turns require taking a circuitous route to reach a bypassed destination.

"The concern is that we've created too many obstacles to get Downtown," Rawson said. "People will continue to avoid it, and we suffered so much we just have to make sure that doesn't happen. People can't wait for the construction to be done. They've had it."

Before the City holds grand opening ceremonies for the $13 million Transit Mall on June 22, construction crews will begin retrofitting work on the ramps in Parking Structure 8 at 2nd Street and Colorado Avenue.

The work, which is scheduled to start this month and end in November, will shut down one of the two northbound lanes while work is done on the sidewalk, Schroeder said.

"There won't be construction on Colorado, but there will have to be cranes," Schroeder said.

The entrance and exit will be fully accessible during the day, although several of the parking levels will be shut down during the work, which involves drilling and pouring new pile foundations below grade and reinforcing the structural steel around the perimeter of the slabs above grade.

"The entrance and exit work will be done at night with full access during the day," Schroeder said.

After a pause during the holidays, similar work will begin in January on Parking Structure 7 on Fourth Street and Broadway. The work should be completed by August 2003.

While the Downtown Parking Task Force -- comprised of members of the City Council, the Planning Commission and the Bayside board --plans what to do with the other six structures (where retrofitting work is less pressing) several projects, including some outside the district's limits, could continue to make it unpleasant, if not difficult, to get Downtown.

The massive $78 million project to replace 80 percent of the City's sewer system is nearing an end after six years of construction, and most of the work within the district's borders has been completed.

Still, once work on the PCH sewers and the Moss Avenue Sewage Pumping Substation wraps up next month, work will continue on Olympic Boulevard through June and begin in July along Lincoln Boulevard and no earlier than September along Main Street and Ocean Avenue.

The project along Lincoln (which will stretch from Pico Boulevard to the south city limit) will take a year to complete and will require open trenching to replace the earthquake-damaged pipes.

The Main Street and Ocean Avenue project, which will start at 2nd Street and Colorado Avenue, involves lining sewers and replacing manholes, work that does not require digging up stretches of street.

City officials have pushed back the July start date for the Main Street and Ocean Avenue project and are contemplating a schedule that will have the least impact on Downtown and Main Street merchants.

"The City is working hard to get it done in the least disruptive way possible," Rambeau said. "We want it to be done fast."

As with most construction projects, much of the work will be done during the summer in order to avoid wet winter weather, with a hiatus during the holidays, Schroeder said, adding that delays due to weather are costly.

After six years in the works, the federally funded sewer project --expected to wrap up in September 2003 --is likely the most ambitious public works project in City history.

"This (the sewer system) was built by someone a long time ago, long before you and I were born," said Tony Antich, the City engineer in charge of public construction projects.

"It will be all brand new, and it will last for a long time, longer than you and I are alive." Plus, "A lot of the streets won't have to be torn up," he added.

Another ambitious project Downtown will be the construction of a new $49.5 million main library to replace the 30-year-old structure, which will be torn down. Work on the new two-story, 104,000-square-foot library is slated to get underway in the summer of 2003, Antich said.

Other major projects that could hamper traffic flow into Downtown also are looming on the horizon. The City is currently drafting together environmental impact reports for the California incline and the pier bridge, which will be seismically strengthened and widened and may be fitted with a ramp to access the parking lot north of the pier.

If all goes according to schedule, work could begin on both projects in spring 2004.

"We're still studying to see the merit of doing it all at once," Antich said. "If we could finish everything at once it would be nice."

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