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Valencia Street Looks Better, at a Cost

One of the remaining construction sites on Valencia Street on Wednesday, July 28, 2010
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One of the remaining construction sites on Valencia Street on Wednesday, July 28, 2010
 
Yearlong construction project improved sidewalks but knocked businesses off their feet

San Francisco just completed a $6.1 million face-lift on Valencia Street — wider sidewalks, trees, bike racks, lighting and art. But if this were actual cosmetic surgery, an old joke might apply: the operation was a success, but the patient died.

Businesses along the stretch of Valencia from 15th to 19th Streets are emerging from what some describe as a construction “nightmare” that tore up one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in the city — and, coupled with the recession, killed off much of the business traffic.

With the city undergoing a street-improvement boom, several other neighborhoods are also receiving the mixed blessing of better streets and sidewalks preceded by months of construction.

All the work has turned streets into a maze of detours and closings. But it is needed. The quality of the city’s roads has eroded in recent years to a score of 63 out of 100 on the Pavement Condition Index, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Commission. That puts the city toward the bottom of the area’s rankings.

For nearly a year, Valencia Street looked like a war zone, with orange and white plastic barricades surrounding open trenches. Parking was eliminated, driving was difficult and it became precarious even to walk.

Customers went away.

“People avoided this area and found new places to eat and shop,” said Nikki DeWald, owner of Blondie’s Bar & No Grill.

DeWald said business owners had been told the inconvenience would take a few months, but instead it lasted 11 months. “I’m happy with the end result,” she said. “It just took too long.”

These blocks have been among the most thriving in the Mission — a mix of upscale, homegrown, and eclectic — from stylish Bar Tartine to nightly lines for margaritas at Puerto Alegre.

Santiago Rodriguez, left, the owner of the restaurant Frjtz on Valenica Street on Wednesday, July 28, 2010. Rodriguez said his business suffered during the construction on Valencia Street.
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen
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Santiago Rodriguez, left, the owner of the restaurant Frjtz on Valenica Street on Wednesday, July 28, 2010. Rodriguez said his business suffered during the construction on Valencia Street.
Adithya Sambamurthy/The Bay Citizen

Frjtz restaurant is known for its French fries with dipping sauces in a space easily mistaken for an avant-garde gallery (an audio recording of conversational Japanese lessons plays in the restroom). But the fun nearly came to an end, said Santiago Rodriguez, the owner.

“I really, really, almost lost my business,” Rodriguez said.

The restaurant’s revenues dropped by $232,000 during the construction, 25 percent of his typical annual business. He stopped paying himself a salary and delayed mortgage payments on his home.

“It was my worst business in 10 years,” Rodriguez said.

It is difficult to determine the financial impact on the entire neighborhood — some owners did not want to talk publicly about the matter — but DeWald, who serves on the board of the Mission Merchants Association, said every business in the construction zone suffered significantly. Her revenues declined by 20 percent, she said.

When told of the hardships, Edward D. Reiskin, director of the Department of Public Works, said, “We’re very sorry for that.”

Reiskin said the Valencia Streetscape Improvement Project was complex and the timetable lengthened by unforeseen problems. He also said, however, that businesses had not been promised that the construction would require only a few months. The original schedule was nine months, he said.

But when digging started last summer, the location of underground utilities differed from city blueprints. “That caused us quite a bit of a delay,” Reiskin said. Record rainfall further postponed completion.

The city is currently spending $42 million to improve streets — nearly double the budget of five years ago, thanks in part to federal stimulus money — after what Reiskin described as “30 years of neglect and disinvestment.”

Because of the recession, contractors eager for the work are charging less, allowing for more paving. In addition to the routine maintenance, large “streetscape” efforts similar to the Valencia Street project are planned for sections of Cesar Chavez and Balboa Streets.

Sean Elsbernd, a city supervisor, said, “To be quite honest, we’re not doing enough.”

Elsbernd called poor streets a quality-of-life issue, and said that despite the inconveniences, “long term, it’s absolutely necessary for the future of the city.”

Reiskin rebuffed the notion that the city might not be able to efficiently handle so many projects at once.

Despite the delays and complaints, Reiskin called Valencia Street a “transformation” designed “to make more room for people.” It is now more inviting to pedestrians, he noted, which in turn increases prospects for shops and restaurants.

In fact, there is enough space on sidewalks now for al fresco dining, and Rodriguez has put two tables outside for Frjtz — a sign of hope.

DeWald said she expected customers to return, in time.

“We haven’t had a chance to discover the positive side yet,” she said.

This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.

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