Street Crime

What the city's doing on Washington Avenue is killing merchants such as Steve Alper

Jul 3, 2002 at 4:00 am
Three generations of Alpers have sold shoes on Washington Avenue, from high-dollar wingtips for white-collar office types to alligator loafers and the latest Nike kicks for street slicksters.

Steve Alper's grandfather Max started the family's long sole shuffle in the 1930s at 1322 Washington Avenue with Alper Shoe Company, a wholesaler. Alper's father, Dave, continued the tradition from 1944 until his death in 1990.

These days, Steve; his mother, Shirley; and his brother Craig continue the business on the southeast corner of 14th and Washington, where they relocated in 1970, just one door away from the original shop. Generations of leather-savvy St. Louisans have come to know the family marque, Marte Shoes.

But it's an open question just how many future generations will get acquainted with this and other familiar commercial names, because Alper and merchants like him are getting hammered by the city's problem-plagued Washington Avenue street-renovation project, a spruce-up that has turned into a $17.3 million nightmare.

The bogeymen of this dusk-till-dawn phantasmagoria include a series of overly optimistic completion dates that the city knows are totally bogus and a broken promise made to retailers, club owners and residents about an orderly staging of demolition and construction, a pledge that chaos and economic killshots would be minimized by careful work done in phases.

"It's a mess down here -- we're barely hanging on," says one merchant, too fearful of retaliation by the city to give a name.

Says Alper: "Retail's tough enough, even if you're at the Galleria. When they shut off all access to your property, it's like being on life support."

At the heart of the broken promise is a major discrepancy between when the city said work would be finished and the black-and-white of the bid proposal and contract signed by Kozeny-Wagner Inc., the construction company doing the work.

The city told folks to expect the first phase to be completed by October 2001, then spring of this year, creating a double opportunity for a tasty crow dinner. Now they promise to have the second phase finished by the turn of the year. But Gregg Wilhelm, a project manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation, notes that Kozeny-Wagner has until August 2003 to finish the two-part project.

"We can only go by what the bid proposal and the contract say, not what the city's putting out there," Wilhelm says. "The contractor is not behind schedule on this project."

As it stands now, the first phase of the project, from 15th Street to 18th Street, is finally nearing completion, about three months later than what the city promised, with street lamps still on back order and parking meters left to install. Meanwhile, jackhammers, dump trucks and Bobcats have invaded the sector of the second phase, from 15th to Tucker.

Instead of a shared but staggered pain, rippling across only a few blocks at a time, a few months at a time, Alper and his fellow merchants are facing the prospect of extended economic agony.

Serious obstacles such as the notorious basement vaults that extend beneath the sidewalks of most buildings and the uncharted pipes and conduits of ancient utilities partly explain the delays to the first phase and have resulted in a substantial amount of unanticipated costs. When the city tried to hit up building owners for the cost of reinforcing shaky vault structures, the howls could be heard from the Arch all the way out to the Delmar Loop, home of the Riverfront Times.

There is also loud street talk about poor coordination among contractors, utilities and the city and bottlenecked decision-making by the ramrod of the project, deputy mayor Barb Geisman, who has been asked by federal highway officials to step down from her Washington Avenue duties because she owns property that will benefit from this refurbishment.

Few people along Washington Avenue believe Geisman has truly stepped down. They think she's still pulling the project's strings.

There's also been outraged grousing about a big sign that notes merchants are still open for business in the construction zone but omits or misspells the names of several retail outlets and clubs and doesn't make it clear that parking is available, merchants say. Requests for additional signs at every barrier, telling people that parking is available for shoppers, were grudgingly met with tiny signs.

Merchant suggestions that the city make up for lost time by putting a third shift on the project during the long days of summer have also been stiffed. No money, the merchants have been told.

Tom Reeves, executive director of Downtown Now!, one of the city's partners in this project, says the steep learning curve of the first phase should mean smoother construction in the second, which he expects to be completed by December or January.

Reeves, who has an office on Washington Avenue, also says the unexpected costs of the first phase have been covered by contingency funds and creative engineering, leaving enough money to complete the second phase and start the third segment, which will refurbish the street from Tucker Boulevard down to Seventh Street and the convention-center hotel. The third section is still in the planning and engineering phase, and a new request for proposals will be released to contractors later this year, Reeves says.

"Hopefully we've uncovered everything that needed to be uncovered and discovered everything that needed to be discovered," says Reeves. "Everybody's going to go through some disruption. It's not going to be any different than any other public-improvement project you're going to see."

But Reeves does acknowledge the exquisite problem of digging up a street that hasn't been excavated in decades, fronted by turn-of-the-last-century buildings and undergirded by old pipes and conduits that may not have been accurately charted. Factor in the trolley tracks, buried under asphalt and concrete. Those the city knew about, but it's still a bear to dig them up.

"Every building down here is unique, every one has a different vault structure and every one's in a different condition -- some fine, some deteriorating -- but you don't find that out until you open up the sidewalk and look inside," says Reeves.

None of this soothes the sore feelings of merchants such as Alper or owners of longtime establishments that have stayed downtown for decades while others have fled to the suburbs -- outfits such as Erlich's Four Hour Cleaner and Shirt Laundry, the Weinberger Garment Company, the Goodman Mercantile Company, the Levine Hat Company and Levin's clothing store. Nor does it please owners of clubs that cater to the tragically young and über-cool, such as Velvet, Rue 13, Isis, Tangerine and Lo.

They feel as if they're being squeezed out of business by a city project designed to usher in a gentrified neighborhood of yuppies and the accompanying franchises that cater to them. Call it the Starbuckification of Washington Avenue.

Buck this, the merchants say.

"They're trying to make it more residential-friendly," said Bruce Levin, owner of the clothing store that bears his family name. "That's fine, but work with the people who have held the area up for decades. Some of the merchants have been down here for 40, 50, 60 years."

Levin, who sells a wide range of clothes -- from infant wear to size 84 trousers -- has been on Washington Avenue for 25 years. He says the project and the nation's recession and sputtering recovery have sliced his income by 10 percent.

"There are some large people who come in here huffing and puffing, they've had to walk so far -- they almost didn't make it," says Levin. "All we want is for people to know that everybody's open for business down here, that all the merchants are open.... You don't get straight answers from the city. Hopefully this will get resolved."

Mayor Francis Slay knows the project's in trouble. Last week, Frankie the Saint led a two-limo convoy past the barriers and jackhammers to meet with one of the older merchants on the avenue. But a one-time meet isn't enough to smooth the ruffled feathers of guys such as Alper.

"Maybe they're doing the best they can; maybe they're not," he says. "Maybe they're wasting a lot of federal money -- I don't know. The city seems very unsympathetic to the current merchants. They're not spending $17 million to keep everything the same. They don't want the same old players who are down here now and who have supported the area in our own provincial way for all these years."

Reeves rejects this argument.

"That's certainly not the case," he says. "The idea is to take what is a substantially vacant area and bolster it with improvements and increase investment in the area and really encourage the development of a residential district down there."

Alper remains unconvinced.

"They want to build this artificial little neighborhood, this instant neighborhood," he says. "They're throwing away the one that's been around all these years."