Desolation Row

Phase 1 construction is nearly complete. Can Washington Avenue survive Phase 2?

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Tom Gray remembers a time, seven years ago, when Velvet was Sanctuary and Washington Avenue was Nowheresville. "We used to ride Big Wheels down the middle of Washington on a Friday night," he says over lunch at the Hungry Buddha, "and there weren't any cars to get in our way."

The warehouses were warehouses -- not gold nuggets nestled in the mitts of prospectors -- and the residents, such as they were, lived downtown because it was dirt cheap and goddamn beautiful. At night, it was as though martial law had been declared and you were living in your own private Victoria. A dog walk on a Sunday morning, recalled one early resident, was like a walk in the country, and a passerby was greeted with a questioning nod, as if to say, "What the hell are you doing all the way out here?"

A kid could have a blast on a Big Wheel at Washington and 15th Street in early spring 2002; there's dirt everywhere, along with bulldozers, granite slabs, fresh concrete and a steamroller or two. Construction crews are working to make the area prim and palatable, pumping federal cash and gentrification into the corridor.

The sidewalks are being widened, bricks laid and benches bolted. Pickup trucks from Specialized Ironworks Steel Erection are parked on side streets, and this, the first part of Washington's two-phase, city-sanctioned revitalization, seems on the verge of completion -- at least you can see the end result somewhere on the distant horizon. It's taken nearly a year to get this far, and it's been hell on the businesses.

"It's a clusterfuck, it really is," says one downtown investor.

"It's been like the Keystone Kops," adds Blake Brokaw, owner of Tangerine, Lo and the Hungry Buddha downtown. "Laclede Gas comes in, and they put in new shut-off valves. The next day -- this is after the two months it took to put those stupid things in -- the street department comes in with one of those big grinders and grinds them right off. We were, like, 'Oh my God. Doesn't anyone talk to anyone?' We need some kind of competency czar down here.

"What they said they're going to do in front of Lo," he continues, "is put this really nice ramp to connect my front door with the street. And right now there's a 4-foot-deep by 3-foot-wide trench running along 15th and the sidewalk -- absolutely no barrier; anyone could fall in that thing."

Tom Reeves, executive director of Downtown Now!, acknowledges some trouble but says a certain amount of chaos is to be expected: "I will say that the first part of the project that everybody has watched did take longer than anticipated. And part of that was a lot of unforeseen conditions that are under the street. You are dealing with a street that's 80-plus years old, and you have various utilities -- water, gas, sewer -- and there's a lot that goes on underneath there. So we did learn quite a bit, and we actually think this first phase will help the second phase and it will move much faster."

The confusion many downtown business owners have witnessed in Phase 1 has them worried about the more disruptive Phase 2: the continuation of the project east down Washington, from 15th Street to Tucker Boulevard. That work is scheduled to commence on April 1, with Oct. 31 designated the completion date. The same contractor responsible for the Phase 1 construction is in charge of Phase 2.

Reeves says several entities are involved in decision-making and planning for the project. "I guess there's several layers here," he explains. "The actual contractor is Kozeny Wagner. The construction manager is Benhan Kwame, and they're officed out of our building, and they actually are a coordinating entity for construction issues. The project is overseen and administered by SLDC [St. Louis Development Corp.] -- which is the city -- and together there is an oversight group that includes the city, that includes the Downtown Partnership -- Downtown Now! -- and 2004." (Another take comes anonymously: When one city worker queried peers about who's in charge of the Washington Avenue project, someone hollers, "No one!")

Washington Avenue will be completely closed to traffic -- though, adds Reeves, not until it's absolutely necessary -- for perhaps as long as six months, an eternity in relation to the average lifespan of a club. Front entry will be virtually inaccessible for the Galaxy, Velvet, Rue 13, Isis, Tangerine and two new ventures, Cobalt and Tequila. With the road closed to cars, clubs are struggling to develop strategies for remaining open, visible and vibrant -- or at least liquid -- while their front doors are hidden behind bulldozers. Most are planning to move their entrances to the rear.

"We don't know how they're going to arrange the sidewalk or anything like that," says Tom Gray of Velvet and Rue 13, "so we're going to set up the rear entrances on both our venues. Just in case the front of the building is completely gone, and there's no access or limited access or difficult access, we can get so the back of the building looks really nice."

Casey Sutton, owner of the only rock club on Washington, the Galaxy, seems nonchalant about the impending construction. "It's easy for me to be less concerned than other owners," he says, "because I'm far more of a destination. Everyone else is either a disco or a restaurant. [With the Galaxy] you don't have a choice: If you want to see the Calling, you're going to come. Coming through the back door isn't going to be a problem."

The construction will be painful, but it could help revitalize the corridor, which over the past year has been showing signs of fading -- even as loft development continues overhead. Although the area is abuzz with speculators, the only neighborhood grocery, the Bodega, closed last year, and nothing has taken its place. Weeknights are still dead on Washington, but last summer, weekends were booming (literally -- Saturday-night cruisers tied up the Ave with subwoofers the size of coffins). Promises of a full-capacity loft district are premature and far from certain.

A few residents even fear the worst: that the city's attempt to pump life into Washington Avenue will backfire. Says one anonymous businessman: "It's ironic that this construction, which is supposed to improve the overall appearance of the area and create a lot more interest in the area from a professional or modern interchange, is probably going to be what kills the area."

When construction is completed, though, the sparkling sidewalks will be large enough for outdoor cafés, and a few tiny parks and greenspaces will provide the area with some refined personality. The best-case scenario is that retail will arrive with the new thoroughfare and the stretch will prosper.

For now, the city's spreading the word on the construction. A letter sent by SLDC to business owners on Valentine's Day outlined the remaining construction timeframe and included a rundown of its publicity campaign. This includes posting 8-by-8-foot signs along the construction fences at both ends of the construction zone, listing all businesses between 15th and Tucker; and developing fliers and posters for merchants with information about the construction schedule, parking, traffic flow and bus routes.

But Velvet's Gray is pessimistic: "We haven't seen anything at all, which is kind of funny, because if it's supposed to start in April, we're talking about three weeks. That's not enough time to tell my patrons anything."

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