Diane Mastrull: Long-term work on Third Street frustrates Old City business owners in Philadelphia

Karen Green, owner of the Ven & Vaida jewelry store and art gallery on Third Street, said she has given up on the area. (Elizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer)

On a Tuesday morning two weeks ago, Philadelphia gallery operator Jinous Kazemi was running after a Nissan Pathfinder on Third Street in Old City, shouting and waving as she tried to get the driver's attention.

At first I thought it was a desperate form of customer solicitation. Then I noticed the traffic cone wedged under the Pathfinder's carriage.

The driver had unknowingly run over it as he tried to maneuver around a block-long construction site between Market and Chestnut Streets that business owners there say has chased away motorists and pedestrians for more than a year. Counting temporary fixes of sinkholes, the street has been a work zone for closer to two years, some said.

"It's been annoying to a lot of different people," said Kazemi, who moved her gallery to Third Street four months ago from Northern Liberties.

At least two merchants have had enough.

"I can't wait to get out of here," said Karen Green, owner for more than four years of Ven & Vaida, a jewelry store and art gallery at 18 S. Third St.

A construction fence blocks her display window. In the street out front is a trench in which the Philadelphia Water Department is replacing several hundred feet of failed, 160-year-old sewer line made of brick.

Also out there have been piles of pipe. A month ago, a portable toilet arrived, prompting Green, who also has a store in Boothwyn, to decide: "That's it. I'm out of here."

So is Mike Naessens, owner of the Beneluxx Tasting Room, a wine bar in the basement level of 33 S. Third St. He had been there for five years before closing about a month ago. Naessens cited as his primary reasons for looking to relocate the sewer project that has "dramatically slowed down business," as well as flooding problems from faulty plumbing in his building. He has yet to find new quarters.

Naessens complained of the smell of sewer gases in his restaurant, construction equipment making the street look closed, the constant presence of dirt, and lack of help from city officials. He said the handling of the sewer project amounted to "gross incompetence," and its pace seems inexplicable.

"I've seen whole buildings go up in a year," Naessens said. "I don't understand how you can't repair 100 yards of pipe."

Graham Copeland, executive director of the Old City District, said: "We understand that the business and property owners on South Third Street have been frustrated and negatively impacted by the ongoing construction work. We're all looking forward to the completion of this project in a matter of weeks."

Those business owners who are staying are no less frustrated by the on-and-off road closures that have generally been more on than off, as well as the constant presence of heavy equipment, idling trucks, jackhammering - and estimates by city agencies of end dates for construction that come and go without a conclusion to the work.

"It's a nightmare," said Don Rocklage, who opened Philadelphia Chiropractic Care at 33 S. Third St. on Oct. 3, 2011, with no hint of construction on the street, but "tons of foot traffic. It was fantastic."

A month later, the construction started, providing an offensive backdrop to the environment Rocklage strives to provide his patients - "where people can come and have no stress and feel safe and secure."

At National Mechanics, a gastropub in the former Mechanics National Bank, managing partner Paul Brown said business remained strong among regulars. But he estimated tourist drop-in traffic was down 50 percent due to the sewer work, which has been directly in front. A construction fence separates the restaurant's front steps from the hole in the ground.

"That pretty much makes us look like we're closed," Brown said. "We try to have a welcome facade with columns and curtains. All that is lost. You just get that view of construction."

Across the street, Old City Flowers owner Sue McKee said telephone and Internet orders had not been negatively impacted by the disruption in the street. She can't say the same for walk-in business.

"The impulse of coming in and buying flowers for your girlfriend is quite diminished," said McKee, who bought the 35-year-old flower shop in January.

Then there's the construction debris, which McKee said had caused two flat tires on her delivery vans, resulting in a total replacement bill of $800.

Yet she had an acquiescent attitude.

"What are you going to do?" McKee asked. "It has to be fixed."

That was the message last week from the Philadelphia Water Department.

"You can't leave failing infrastructure in the ground," spokesman John DiGiulio said.

Why it has taken at least a year to replace is a little more complicated.

Once the Water Department started work, it became apparent that power and gas lines had to be removed before sewer pipes could be replaced, DiGiulio said. That necessitated the involvement of two other agencies, Peco and Philadelphia Gas Works.

Accommodating each agency's schedules wasn't easy, pushing the official start of work to the spring, DiGiulio said. Then came complications.

"With any construction project like this, there's things you may run into that were unexpected," he said. "When we opened the street, we thought we'd be able to leave one lane of traffic open. But at a certain point, the street became hazardous, and we couldn't allow vehicles to come down anymore. We did our best."

Peco is finishing up what it has to do. After that, the Water Department can complete its work, which will include restoration of the street, DiGiulio said.

"We're hoping that we can get this done within the paving season," which typically runs to the end of November, DiGiulio said.

Should unaccommodating temperatures or other issues interfere with that, paving would have to wait until March or April, he said, adding: "That doesn't mean the street couldn't be reopened. It would look like a road that had work done on it."

That, more or less, has been the problem for businesses there for more than a year.


Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @mastrud.