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Cultural Trail delays take toll on Fountain Square merchants

Scott Olson
August 11, 2011
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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.

 

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  • @Chris
    Chris, I left a message with the IBJ to say someone should investigate. I also left a message on the mayor's action line as noted in my prior comment. I also know of at least two others who wrote editorials for the Indy Star that were ignored. I cannot speak about the entire cultural trail, only Fountain Square. I believe it is a worthwhile endeavor and will be enjoyed, if any businesses are able to keep their doors open and live through the construction to remain in the area.
  • AT&T
    Wonder how fast AT&T would have a crew out there if someone else "accidentally" dug up/cut their lines?
  • A Word About The Conrad
    The owners of the Conrad, who got a HUGE property tax abatement for their hotel project (so, I find their behavior especially galling), fought the portion of the trail in front of their hotel tooth-and-nail. It took over 3 years of negotiations and over $100,000 in design changes to reach a compromise with them. And the compromise, was basically a complete surrender. The hotel got built for them essentially a big, heated, decorative brick valet parking lot in the front of their building, all constructed on an expedited schedule.

    I am not sure how the Conrad owners pulled it off. Perhaps, they had some clause in their development agreement with the city that they receive special access rights to the public street for their valet parking operation. However, I think it was ridiculous how they were shown special treated. That said, I understand the Trail planners did the best they could with those jerks. I only wish there was some way to claw back the Conrad's tax abatement.

    As for the delays in Fountain Square, I understand there are reasons, which include historic preservation laws, the PNC Bank owners being difficult, and AT&T dragging their feet with relocating the utilities. That said, it is probably true the city could have planned the contruction better.

    Unfortunately, there is not much to be done at this point, except to get construction back on schedule and get the project completed. Once the Trail is done, everyone will enjoy and appreciate the end result, so it would be best to get the construction ramped up again as quickly as possible.
    • We lived through it
      As a resident of Chatam Arch, I lived through over a year of construction to bring the cultural trail into my neighborhood. It was tough, but well worth I think. The trail is beautiful and practical. During the ice storm last winter, it was one of the only areas that was quickly cleaned and safe to walk on.

      Our delays came from water main issues found under East and Walnut streets. Water mains that had not been seen since the late 1890's, and only one expert that was hired by the contractors to properly oversee construction on and around this old pipes.

      The main reason the construction around the Conrad went so quickly and smoothly is because these unseen issues that lie several feet under the streets and sidewalks were corrected during the construction of the building just a few years ago and there were no surprises.

      That being said, almost everyone other construction sight has encountered something. Currently there are phone lines hampering the construction in front of IRT which need to be moved. And of course that work must be completed by the phone companies, essentially tying the hands of cultural trail workers and contractors.

      So they should be more up front and realistic when setting completion dates and time tables and have a plan in place for more quickly resolving these same issues that occur time and time again.

      But when completed it does spur growth and business. The article didn't mention all the new business on Mass Ave and the Chatam neighborhood that have opened since construction has been completed. To name a few: Chatam Home, Yogga-latte, Black Apple, Flying Cupcake, Citi Dogs, Sweet Tooth Bakery, and the Bicycle shoppe coming soon.
    • Not Gonna Happen
      Construction complete by the end of the year? There's not a lot of paving done in December and January - too cold, and they aren't even close to getting any significant work completed.

      Look for this part of the trail to be wrapped up sometime around June of next year, if they are lucky.
    • $$$ Talks
      As another poster alluded to below, the work in front of the Conrad toot less than a month. While Washington was closed, the Conrad was given two lanes of Illinois St to use as a temporary valet station, backing up traffic for blocks. Meanwhile, the locals in FS are given excuses. All in the name of bread and circuses in an election year.
      • Not Going To Happen
        Paul, property taxes cannot simply be waived under our Indiana law. I don't know DC or Virginia law (if you mean the DC suburbs). But, in Indiana you get a property tax abatement in return for promising certain job creation, investment, etc. Also, senior citizens get certain exemptions, etc. But, just waiving property taxes for a business being inconvenienced would require a change in the law.

        Moreover, there is no way to force a landlord to pass any savings on taxes on to a renter. If a developer gets low-income housing tax credits, they can be required to rent at subsidized rates, but that is something entirely different from what you are proposing.

        Then, of course, there is the little fact that the city is broke, and is not going to give up revenue under any circumstances.

        In other words, nice idea, but never will happen. So, let's focus on reality. The best solution to the problem would simply be to get construction ramped up again, so the project can be completed as quickly as possible.
      • Tammy, the IBJ doesn't have anything to do with the Trail?
        Tammy, why would you leave message with the IBJ? They are a newspaper, not in control of construction. Mayor Ballard and his administration are ultimately responsible for managing construction of the Trail, so that is really who you should be contacting.
      • And Your Comments Are UNsupported
        How is a trail, unsafe? Just a throw-away and unsupported comment from you.

        How is it unwanted? It has been tremendously popular and the people of Fountain Square were very glad to have it come through their neighborhood. Again, another unsupported comment.

        How is it unattractive or unpopular? It has been widely praised both locally, nationally, and internationally for being an attractive and innovative design. Also, the constructed portion is widely used by walkers, joggers and cyclists, so I am not sure where you are getting your "unpopular" nonsense from. If you are trying to state that in your personal opinion it is unattractive, fine, but that is not what most people think of the Trail.

        Also, the Trail is ultimately a piece of public infrastructure, and you do not get reimbursed for delays of construction of public infrastructure. If a highway takes longer to repair, as does happen fairly frequently, then the motorists or businesses along the highway do not get any special reimbursement. That is life, delays happen, and there is no reimbursement for them.

        Finally, the City of Indianapolis ultimately approved and manages construction of the Trail since it involves the use of public transportation funds and uses city right-of-way, so take it up with the Ballard administration if you are unhappy with the delays.
      • Waste
        What in the world were the "cultural trail" people THINKING? Or were they thinking at all? Unpopular, unnecessary, unattractive, and unsafe. I'm not buying ANY of the excuses. The trail developers should reimburse every business owner who's had to close or even lost a significant amount of business over this boondoggle. Another, and even more blatant, Bridge to Nowhere. The track excuse is a load of hooey; those tracks were known - and actually should have been incorporated into the trail. And if it was only going to Fountain Square, why is Shelby St. torn up all the way to past Pleasant Run Parkway?
        • trail
          Yes there are many factors to why Square Rootz Closed, we did have a bad winter which hurt and the food truck issue did not help, but when your business drops 65% in one month because of construction how can you bounce back after the winter and other issues at hand? I also said in my interview that I do think it is a good thing for the city it was just not a good thing for my business. If a majority of your customers dine at lunch and it takes about 20 min. to get through the square and 20 min to get back to work that really does not leave you with much time to dine for lunch. I also do not have any issues showing my books to anyone.
        • Who's important?
          I've seen plenty of workers out on the trail. On Washington Street. Mostly in front of the Conrad. But now that they have so successfully expedited that monstrosity of an enhanced parking lot, they appear to be getting back to the other blocks on Washington and they're even working on Virginia on the blocks nearest to Washington. Why hasn't anyone come out and told it like it is? We can't have our Super guests seeing any unfinished construction areas downtown when they come to visit in six months. If that means that small businesses in Fountain Square close, that's just collateral damage in the battle to build our city's image as a major event host.
        • This is a huge deal
          Mike is dead wrong...when construction, especially of the nature that is going on there, takes that much longer than projected, businesses suffer tremendously (they were supposed to be done in July, now it's next year...they don't even say when next year...you really think that is reasonable Mike?)...unless your pockets are very deep, you can get into trouble very easily, regardless of how good your product and service is...margins in restaurants (depending on what you serve) are small enough that even 10% traffic reduction can be the difference, and they have to be getting hurt worse than that. The area is a mess...it is not a minor inconvenience to get in there, it is major. Mike is typical of a lot of folks today...no matter what happens to the little guy, he screwed himself...these people supported this project, there have been major issues before with Mass Ave. that supposedly were "lessons learned", and the same thing happens, only even worse this time...that does not necessarily add up to bad planning by the busines owners to me...Bad stuff happens to good people sometimes, and that area is a war zone right now. Mike...you can get a heart from the Wizard if you want one, and as one of the other writers noted, enjoy your Big Mac. Here's hoping the Fountain Square merchants finally get their Yellow Brick Road built, and sooner rather than later...they deserve it.
        • Property Taxes
          On H Street, NE in Washington, DC the city is constructing a street car line (sans a power source). This has been very disruptive to the businesses however, there city has waived property taxes on these properties while the construction is underway. Perhaps this is something that should be considered by Indianapolis while construction is ongoing. The city should also make sure that renters are receiving the benefit and property owners are passing on the savings. When complete the taxes should be restored.
          • Ditto Everyone Except Mike
            Go to the businesses, talk to the owners (easy to do because most are locally owned and the owners are actually there or cooking in the kitchen!), eat their food. These are good people that don't deserve this and it's out of their control. What is the answer? Who needs to hear this so action will be taken?
          • Fountain Square
            Mike, I guess you don't believe that businesses have been struggling to stay open for years in this economy. It doesn't take much to push them out. I guess in your world there would only be McDonalds and Wal-Marts.
          • Blame
            Dear Craig: My questions is "who is to blame?" Do I blame the mayor or someone else? The community needs to take action. Something that started so positive is now terrible for the area. - Poncho
          • Boardwalks
            Although I have not seen the torn-up areas, would it not be possible to install temporary sidewalks (boardwalks) or put down large metal plates to allow foot and vehicular traffic while the work is stopped? Small cost to the CICF and a large benefit to the locals.
          • ATT
            ATT is more than likely responsible. They work on their own schedule and do not care about anybody else. They are a bureuacratic nightmare. I had to have one line moved 20 ft, it took almost 6 weeks, to plan, get approvals and then get a different crew scheduled to actually do the work. They are horrible to work with.
          • It's true
            ...that never once have I seen workers on the site in recent months that I've gone to Fountain Square for lunch or an early dinner. I thought that was a coincidence. It's a pity this is dragging on because the neighborhood had a ton of momentum. Let's get this project back on track before more businesses are shuttered!
          • bad for business
            Although the Cultural Trail is beautiful and useful it has killed my business as well. Not only the time it took to construct but the after effects continue to prevent my customers from visiting my shop. The Cultural trail took out one block length of parking and the new giant curbs have taken away upward of 24 spaces for people to park. Its a terrible plan for succussful business.
          • broker
            Construction did not close these restaurants. Let's see the books for the past 18 months...a good operator with a good menu and service is not wiped out by short term construction. If your restaurant is that good - people will walk around a few bricks to get lunch. Any short term lack of business from construction should certainly be offset by the increased traffic the trail will bring. The strong restaurants will be there for the trail. The poor establishments won't be around for the trail because they are simply driven out by the economy or their own poor management
            • I couldn't agree more!
              I sent messages to the IBJ and also left a message on the mayor's action line a couple of months ago on this very topic.

              I have more than one friend that owns a business in Fountain Square and therefore have continued to try to frequent Fountain Square for lunches and dinners.

              I must say it is always a challenge to get through the construction maze and find parking in the area.

              I have never seen a piece of construction equipment moving on any of my frequent trips to the area!

              It's almost as if the city wants to close the doors on the current businesses. I do not understand why it's taking so long for this project! Are city planners waiting for the doors to close on local businesses before making a move? The question begs a response!

              In the meantime, business owners suffer, patrons diminish, and the once thriving, recently revitalized area turns to dust in the midst of stagnate machinery!

              Another failure for the city of Indianapolis? To be sure... if action is not taken soon!
            • Ugh.
              I had been told that AT&T had simply not shown up to move utilities that needed to be moved to keep things on schedule. I don't know if that's true or not, but there are certainly lots of things that can go wrong. It's frustrating that more effort isn't going into this issue. A closed business can really ruin a person's life for quite a while. The progress is great, and the trail will be a boon - this part is just frustrating, though. I was incredulous at the amount of time Mass Ave was torn up too.
              • No workers
                Before the construction on the Virginia leg of the Cultural Trail began, there were several meetings in which the organizers promised to learn from the Mass Avenue disaster. They promised to not tear up the street and let it sit there for a long period of time like they did on Mass Avenue. They even asked neighborhood associations, if it was okay for the construction companies to work during the night (!).

                It is extremely frustrating to see the construction sitting there without progress. There is hardly ever a worker on this part of the leg. And all these excuses about things they found underneath the concrete are a joke. This part of Indianapolis is barely 100 years old - this is not an ancient settlement. How can these issues not have been anticipated? And why is nobody working on fixing them right now?

                For me, this is just an inconvenience. For the local businesses, this is a disaster. Please support the great businesses in Fountain Square during this hard time!

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