To the average person, Tennyson Street between 38th and 44th avenues is an inconvenient mess of construction. To business owners, it's a badly mismanaged city project that threatens their livelihood. Over the last few years, the northwest Denver street has become flush with shops, restaurants and art galleries -- and in the last few months, they've been supplemented with an abundance of trucks, torn-up concrete and blame-passing.
No one has spoken out against the Tennyson streetscaping project itself; the end result will be a wider street and sidewalks lined with more lights, benches, trees and planting beds. But the execution of the project has many businesses wondering if they will be around when the nice new concept is realized.
Tennyson Street had not been worked on in decades, as evidenced by the trolley lines that were torn out of the street when the project began. In 2007, Denver voters approved $2.1 million in general obligation bonds to be dedicated to improving the street.
Daelene Mix, spokeswoman for the Denver Department of Public Works, says construction began on Tennyson in May 2010. But most of the real work really got under way in March. That's when the city launched preliminary pot-holing, a process in which city workers drill small holes in the street to find out where utilities such as gas, water and electric are located. Full pot-holing followed this past May, at which point the project became much more troublesome than originally planned.
The city discovered Xcel gas lines had been laid too shallow. The original plan was to remove the top layer of the street and re-pave over the top, but because of the gas lines' location, the street-lowering equipment would have broken into mains and service loops. So the entire street had to be pulled up and the gas mains buried deeper.
"This is probably the crucial statement of the whole process: There is a difference between being in the drawing room and designing how you want to do one of these projects and finding out what you get when you actually get into the ground and find out where things might be -- for example, utilities, gas, wire, electric, phone, sewer, water," says Mark Stutz, spokesman for Xcel.
With projects like this, Stutz says, the city will typically perform pot-holing and then send a work order to Xcel detailing what facilities the company needs to move or adjust. Toward the end of May, Stutz adds, he received three calls from the city detailing areas where Xcel would need to bury gas mains deeper. The only block between 38th and 44th avenues where Xcel doesn't need to move gas lines is the 4000 block of Tennyson.
"We still haven't gotten any official work orders, but we decided we're going to get our people out there. We're going to get our work done that we need to with the gas lines, and we're going to try to get out of there by August 19," says Stutz. "This is far from the normal process for us. We did see some of their original plans back in October that included some scraping, but until they actually go in and do the pot-holing and look at what needs to be done for the utilities and tell us what needs to be done and give us a firm work order, we don't do anything."
Stutz says Xcel had a crew working on Tennyson by June 10, which he describes as "lightning speed" for the company, considering the extra permits needed before it could begin. The project was originally scheduled to end on November 1, but the construction has been much more disruptive than originally planned.
"Typically, our contractor is allowed to work two blocks at a time," Mix says. "But due to the pot-holing discoveries associated with the project, the city needs to wait until Xcel performs their relocation before we can begin our work. This was not planned, but we are working closely with Xcel and the merchants on Tennyson to get the work completed as soon as possible. We anticipate the planned completion date in November will be met."
Kelly McBride, owner of My Sweet Bakery at 4326 Tennyson Street, opened her store in April and has only had a two- or three-week window in which there was not construction in front of her bakery. "From the moment construction stopped, our business levels increased every week," she says. "And then, they started the street work and we were off about 20 percent, but there was still parking."
Then Concrete Works, which contracted with the city to pave the road, tore up the street in front of My Sweet Bakery and McBride lost her parking -- and sometimes even the sidewalk leading to her store. Concrete Works, which she says was "the only company we got regular, clear, honest, non-bullshit information from," told her that it would only be working on the street in front of her store for about three weeks, and that she would have parking back in front of her store after that.
"That just never happened," she says. "So after that, we were down about 50 to 60 percent and sales were in the toilet."
McBride is far from alone in terms of slumping sales. Brasserie Felix closed earlier this month and that Bookery Nook, at 4280 Tennyson, opened an ice cream parlor in hopes that it would attract more business. Shannon Piserchio, who co-owns the Nook along with her husband, says the store is barely holding on.
Mix says the city has a dedicated Xcel liaison in Public Works, and that Xcel also reviews all City and County of Denver design plans. Yet merchants are frustrated with the lack of communication and the back-and-forth blame-game between the city and Xcel.
"There is a lot of this going on," says Piserchio, crossing her arms and pointing a finger to each side. "If we close, I definitely want to know who was responsible for that. It's frustrating. We work seven days a week, eighteen-hour days. We've taken every bit of money we have. We've taken loans out. Everything is in this, and then we see the mistakes that are going on out there and it's so discouraging."
Along with the more extensive construction, McBride says she and fellow business owners have encountered Xcel and city workers sleeping in trucks, splitting early in the afternoon and leaving work trucks on the street in spots that customers could be using -- while business owners and their employees are parking blocks away and walking.
"We all knew there was going to be some impact from this, but if the project had been planned properly from the beginning, it could have run efficiently. Impact would have been minimized and businesses could have survived it, which is what we all hoped for," says McBride. "Instead, it's just been incredibly botched."
McBride and Piserchio say Xcel and the city communicated with them only after several business owners complained to anyone who would listen. Mix says the city has held several outreach meetings with merchants that included Xcel staff and the two project contractors; the city also sends out weekly progress e-mails to business owners.
"The city understands this project has been impactful to local business owners on Tennyson and we have been working with them and Xcel closely to minimize that impact as much as possible," Mix says. "The city has three employees dedicated to the project; the contractor has a dedicated project manager and inspector on-site, and the subcontractor has a dedicated foreman on site. Xcel has also added two additional crews to assist with their gas-line work, and the city's contractors have agreed to work additional hours during the week to ensure the project remains on schedule. Everyone involved is doing what they can to get the work done as quickly as possible."
While the construction might get done on time, it could also stretch into the holiday shopping season, creating another obstacle for businesses that have already been affected.
"If our holiday season is impacted at all, that's it," says Piserchio. "In a way, I feel like we're collateral damage. They think, 'If this business closes, whatever, no big deal. It will be a nicer street, we'll get them out, we'll get somebody else in who will pay more for their rent.' I'm so cynical and jaded right now."
The longer construction lasts, the more it will threaten seemingly secure businesses, McBride says. "Now it is seriously impacting a whole street of tiny businesses," she notes. "It's not just some random business like Starbucks that closes down and it still has Starbucks. It's one person running their own business, who will probably lose their house, lose their business, lose everything, and it shouldn't be taken so lightly. I think it's very unfair and it needs to be looked at. I think the city needs to take it really seriously that someone is basically fucking up the projects that are going on around the city and potentially putting people out of business because of it."
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