Merchants in Fountain Square are expressing frustration over unfinished construction on a section of the Cultural Trail that they say is hurting business and has caused at least three shops to close.
The eight-mile urban path in Indianapolis is being built over city right-of-ways using $62.5 million in private gifts and government grants. Work started in 2007 and is expected to be complete by the end of next year.
Construction on the Virginia Avenue leg of the trail that runs through Fountain Square began in mid-March and remains incomplete almost five months later, even though merchants say they were told by city officials the section would be done by the end of July.
A construction zone in which parking spaces are closed, lanes of traffic blocked and sidewalks ripped up has led to a big decline in visitors to the historic neighborhood southeast of downtown, business owners say.
“A lot of the businesses in Fountain Square derive their business from foot traffic, and we’ve had an almost complete shutdown of that traffic because of the construction,” said Craig Von Deylen, president of the Fountain Square Merchants Association, in a phone interview Thursday morning.
Von Deylen, an architect and developer who co-owns The Murphy Art Center on Virginia Avenue, attributed the closing of Square Rootz Deli, Wake Press and Gallery, and Venus and Mars Fashion Exchange to the construction.
Fountain Square has experienced a rebirth of sorts in recent years and Von Deylen said he was concerned about momentum being stopped by the construction delays. He said he's seen no sense of urgency to complete the project.
"The only thing they did quickly was the demolition," Von Deylen said in a letter to IBJ. "Since then, the construction zone has been a virtual wasteland. We are still without the parking that was taken away, and our commercial district looks like a bomb was dropped here. It’s difficult for people to even know our businesses are open, let alone access them."
Square Rootz Deli on Prospect Street near Virginia Avenue closed in early June. The eatery’s owner, Jeff Reuter, said his lunch traffic, previously bolstered by employees from nearby Eli Lilly and Co. and Anthem Inc., suffered immensely due to the construction.
“It was really mind-blowing to see how well we were doing,” he said. “But April came and people just couldn’t get to us.”
Sarah Holsapple, spokeswoman for the Indianapolis Department of Public Works, acknowledged that completion of that portion of the trail has been delayed. The Virginia Avenue spur of the trail now isn’t expected to be finished until the end of the year, she said.
“We never want [construction projects] to put businesses out of business,” she said. “We think that there will be major enhancements made to that area, and it will attract more attention to that area.”
Von Deylen said Cultural Trail organizers and city officials have done a poor job with communication about the project.
"We have asked for a schedule and an explanation from the creators of the Cultural Trail, Central Indiana Community Foundation," he said. "We’ve been given excuses about the weather and other unexpected urban site impediments and told that Hunt Paving Group has found it expedient to work elsewhere on the trail."
Holsapple cited a couple of reasons for the delays.
The contractor, locally based Hunt Construction Group, uncovered trolley tracks along Virginia Avenue that were deeper than expected and need to be removed. The tracks and ties need to be tested for hazardous materials and also documented with the Indiana Historical Society, Holsapple said.
In addition, pouring new concrete along Virginia Avenue has been interrupted by window wells that need to be filled at the PNC Bank building at 1059 Virginia Ave.. Getting permission from the building owner and the tenant has taken longer than expected, she said.
“It sounds like [the merchants have] had some lack of information, and that’s our mistake,” Holsapple said. “We apologize.”
That’s little consolation to Dennis Baar, who’s already decided to close his Fountain Foliage shop on Prospect Street on Nov. 1.
The weak economy and the Cultural Trail delays proved too much for Fountain Foliage to survive.
“The construction was the straw that broke the camel’s back," Baar said.
Brian Payne, president of the CICF, did not return a phone call seeking comment.