Curb Your Enthusiasm

By Heather Aveson  |

“Everybody knew for a couple of years it was coming. But I didn’t expect it to be this bad,” says Tony Mitri, owner of the Gulf Service Center of Lexington struggling to be heard over the rumble of machinery and gazing back at his banks of empty pumps. It’s another day in what Diane Garabedian of Prime Roast Beef and Seafood now refers to as ‘a war zone’. “The situation seems to be that they just came in and blew everything up.” Business owners, shoppers and commuters are all feeling frustrated by the major road construction at the intersection of Rte. 2A (Marrett Road) and Waltham Street.

LEFT: Construction trucks, debris and barriers discourage motorists and shoppers from visiting the shops at Marrett Square.

On paper the project warrants just a three line description by the Mass Department of Transportation. But at ground zero it’s a different story. The project has involved everything from digging up the street to replace drainage systems and add new signal components to removing and relocating utility poles and all the wiring associated with them in addition to all the work at street level. From one merchant’s point of view “it’s just been chaos.”

When construction began this spring the extent of the project took everyone by surprise. Even the Lexington DPW didn’t seem to understand its scope. A web page set up to answer questions about the project estimated “there will be 3 – 4 construction workers and 3 pieces of equipment on site. More or larger equipment may be brought in for specific portions of the work.” But, business owners have not been kept up to date and interruptions have been extensive due to the large numbers of workers, equipment and debris blocking the intersection and individual businesses during the busiest part of the day. And that’s led to a lot of frustration. Sal Serio of Nature’s Way Cleaners sees his customers making major adjustments, but at least they’re still coming. “I’m doing OK. My core customers have told me they’ve switched their times to come. The 8am people come at 4pm. I’m fortunate; my customers have been really loyal to me – through thick and thin. I appreciate that.” But at Prime Roast Beef and Seafood the Garabedians’ customers can’t be as flexible. “When 65% of your business is lunch, you can’t work around it. We get people who call and before they place an order they ask, Is that mess still going on? If you have half an hour for lunch and you’re going to be stuck in traffic for forty minutes you’re going to go somewhere else.” Bruegger’s Bagels is also feeling the squeeze. With customers stopping in for a morning bagel or light lunch they’re customers have to battle the busiest part of the construction day. Bruegger’s Manager, Edwin Urena has watched their sales fall approximately 25% a week over last year.

RIGHT: Road widening has left utility poles stranded in the pavement. One of the final steps in the project will be the relocation of all poles and services.

Anneli Mynttinen of Lexington has braved the chaos to drop off dry cleaning at Nature’s Way, “I try to avoid this area. I cut down the side streets. I still frequent the stores when I can. I’m just surprised that it’s everywhere in town.” And that just adds to the frustration. Selectman Peter Kelley has been following the project closely since its inception more than a decade ago. “Part of the frustration is that there are other road projects going on at the same time, like the resurfacing of Marrett Road from Mass Ave. That’s a separate contract with a different contractor. On the projects that the town is more directly involved with, we try to arrange for work to be done at times when there are fewer cars on the road, But because this is a state contract, managing the day-to-day activity is pretty much out of our hands. However, I can tell you that Lexington DPW officials are encouraging the contractor to move the project along as swiftly as possible.”

Ed Sullivan of Tricon Sports feels the clock is ticking, “Has it impacted us, yes maybe to a lesser degree than some of the other businesses. But if they don’t get this done pretty quickly we’ll really be impacted because high school sports start up in the next week or so. We draw from all around and once they go somewhere else, it’s hard to get people to come back.” For other merchants even the temporary loss of business is having a devastating effect. “They’re doing this project at our expense. We’ve been here less than a year, this is the last thing we need. It creates a domino effect,” says Garabedian. He’s already had to cut back his employees hours. Tony Mitri at the Gulf Station is worried about his employees as well. “The people who work for me – they’ve been working for me a long time. I can’t lay them off just because it’s slow. Who’s going to help me.” With the pumps and repair bays empty his guys try to stay busy improving the station’s curb able by cleaning up the planter around their sign. It’s a heartening juxtaposition amidst the ravaged landscape that surrounds them.

Communication Breakdown

Merchants feel left out of the information loop. Although the DPW website states that, ‘MassDOT will contact businesses a day in advance if a staging area will cause any interruptions on the property,’ business owners say that’s just not happening. Communication becomes even more complicated because the project has been contracted out to a private firm, J. Tropeano of North Andover, through the state bidding process. Though some official communication may be going on between the state, the contractor and the landlords, the information isn’t getting to the business owners. It’s unclear where the breakdown is occurring, but the merchants are paying the price. This breakdown may merit review by the town before embarking on future large scale projects. In the meantime, merchants rely on gossip and word of mouth rather than official channels for updates. Ed Sullivan has heard several rumors about drainage issues slowing the project down and that’s how he gets all his information. “No representatives come in to update us – the only updates we get are secondhand.” And staging areas and interruptions have been hampering business since the project began. Sal Serio worries about his neighbors, “There’s been no contact with the state. They’ve paid attention to the traffic flow. But access to certain places, like Gino’s and the UPS store has been blocked for five weeks. The Marrett Square merchants, already pinched for parking, sometimes find themselves barricaded in their own shops. Diane Garabedian looks out her front window at the oversized machinery and piles of rubble in front of his shop. “The other day they were parking here, had their trucks here. They completely blocked off the area at lunch time. That’s 65% of our business gone.” And that’s what scares a lot of these merchants the most. Tony Mitri echoes his Tricon Sports neighbor concerns. No matter how well the newly configured intersection works he knows, “When people change their habits it hard to get them to come back.”

Businesses are doing their best to keep customers coming during construction so they won’t have to woo them back later. Tricon Sports still has its tempting racks out front, Crushed Grapes held a wine tasting over the weekend and Prime Roast Beef is offering more lunch specials than usual. Supporting the businesses now is an investment in the future, just as everyone hopes the reconfigured intersection will be. Francesca Pfrommer of Lexington continues to make her way through the construction to patronize Nature’s Way. She takes a long range view of the chaos. “The inconvenience is about upgrading the infrastructure. I have children who go to Clarke and they walk. For a while I would go through town to avoid this area but they have their own set of stuff. So – just grin and bear it.” Selectman Peter Kelley is also looking forward but is committed to helping merchants now, “The good news is the project is nearing completion and now that the pavement is down, it’s a bit easier to travel through that intersection and I highly encourage everyone to support those businesses that have been affected by the construction.”

The Grand Plan

The Grand Plan

The 1.8 million dollar project has been in the works for years, actually for more than a decade. Rich Nangle of the Massachusetts Department of Transportation points out that this project is not unusual in that way. It’s actually typical. A project has to reach several milestones before getting funded and moving on to the construction phase. At a Massachusetts Highway Department community design meeting in June 2006, Design Consultant John Bechard said he first got the project in 1997. According to the Bechard the intersection was listed on the Top 1000 (most dangerous intersections) for several years. He cited antiquated signal systems for both cars and pedestrians, the wide open nature of the intersection, and the lack of sidewalks and curb cuts as major deficiencies of the intersection.

The project proceeded in fits and starts for several years and by the 2006 Community Meeting it had reached the twenty-five percent design benchmark. There were still the seventy-five percent and one hundred percent designs to get through. After that a project gets in line to enter the TIP, or Transportation Improvement Program which funds projects and gets them on a schedule.

The overall design met with widespread community approval at the meeting. The intersection’s central location between Lexington High School and Clarke Middle School as well as within walking distance of Bridge Elementary made pedestrian safety a major issue for community members. The Highway Department agreed and cited improved pedestrian safety along with better traffic flow as the top priorities for the intersection..

The final design features widened roads on both approaches of Marrett Road and the northbound or Lexington Center bound approach of Waltham Street to accommodate left turn lanes, new traffic signals will be mast mounted making them more visible and will include protected turn phases for the Marrett Road westbound and Waltham Street northbound approaches. These are all designed to improve traffic flow and cut down on wait times for signal phases. New pedestrian signals will conform with current safety standards and include an exclusive pedestrian phase. Concrete sidewalks with curb cuts and wheelchair ramps will also improve pedestrian safety. In addition, the traffic island in front of Dunkin Donuts will be removed and the corner built out and landscaped. Entrances to businesses along Marrett Rd. will be clearly delineated adding to the safety of both moving traffic and those entering and exiting the roadway.

After contacting the agencies and contractor involved in the project it became clear I wasn’t going to get an official response either. But through word of mouth, it looks like construction should be wrapping around the end of October. A bit sooner than originally planned. In the meantime, frequent your favorite local merchants, or even drop in on a new one, in the area and remember Nature’s Way customer Francesca Pfrommer’s philosophy, “If you can take the bigger view it’s actually going to improve the area. Just take a deep breath.” And support your neighborhood merchants.

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