WILMINGTON — A streetscape project slated to begin earlier this month is in a holding pattern, the city confirmed Wednesday.
The $3.5-million project to replace sewer infrastructure and improve aesthetics along North Front Street was originally planned to begin in October 2021. Area businesses expressed concerns about construction during the holidays impeding foot traffic, so the city agreed to wait until January 2022 instead.
The streetscape project will affect the section of North Front Street between Chestnut and Walnut streets. Installed will be new utility services, pavement, granite curbing, sidewalks, decorative bricks, lighting and landscaping; however, due to a backlog of materials ordered, construction cannot begin on time.
Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, a partner in the city project, is dishing out $900,000 for the design and construction of replacing its nearly century-old water and sewer lines. This upgrade is being done simultaneously with the streetscape to mitigate impact to the public.
The pipes needed were already on a six-month backorder when T.A. Loving Company attempted to make the purchase after the contract was awarded at a Nov. 16 council meeting. City spokesperson Jennifer Dandron explained materials for city projects are typically ordered once a contract is in place, as lag time is typically not an issue.
Since there is an extensive waiting period to receive the requested 16-inch ductile iron pipe, the city is working with the contractor, engineer and CFPUA on the approval of alternative materials to use.
“The city is moving forward with the substitution of the large diameter ductile iron pipe with PVC pipe for portions of the utility piping in the project,” Dandron explained.
The replacement material is of equal quality and price, she added, and more readily available; however, that delivery date is still unknown. The contractor is waiting on approval for the variance from the state.
Java Dog Coffee House owner Paul Brown said he hopes the city will have its equipment and materials sorted out before beginning construction, so work is not halted mid-process.
“We don’t want another Water Street that has been torn up for years,” he said. “What was the last year you could turn right off Market onto Water and drive straight through to the Railroad Museum? The city doesn’t have the best record.”
Dandron assured that will not happen and reasoned that is why the city is postponing the work.
“We’re not beginning the project prior to having the materials on hand as this would result in an extended construction duration for the project,” Dandron said.
While a new start date has not yet been determined, the duration of the project will still take four to six months. The process will shut down one block and one intersection at a time. Work will be done in the streets first. Sidewalks will remain open for pedestrians during that time, until work moves to those areas.
“There is a concern the delay will impact the start of our tourist season, and we are trying to come up with ways to mitigate that impact,” said Peggy Mahan, owner of Occasions Just Write in downtown.
New Elements Gallery owner Miriam Oehrlein echoed this sentiment. She hoped work would be done in the slower months of January and February but also said there really is no good time.
While New Elements will remain open during construction, Oehrlein said recent events have forced the business to find new ways to reach customers.“After going through the aftermath of [Hurricane] Florence and Covid closures, we remain positive and focused on reaching out to clients and working with them outside the gallery,” she added. “We have discovered we don’t have to be in our store to make sales.”
Dandron said the city will post “Businesses are Open” signs throughout the construction areas to better inform visitors.
A member of the Board of the Cotton Exchange Merchants Association, Mahan said she and others are getting creative to draw attention to Cotton Exchange businesses as well. They want to incorporate additional notices and decorations along the fencing in the construction zones to alert customers shops are open. She is also exploring the option of creating a pick-up point in the back parking lot for customers purchasing merchandise from the Cotton Exchange but wishing to avoid Front Street construction.
The city sent a letter to roughly 160 street addresses in the affected area (not all of those are businesses, Dandron confirmed), with 30 more located within Cotton Exchange, on Dec. 13, 2021, pushing the start date back from Jan. 1 to mid-month. Brown said he received another correspondence from the city Jan. 7 about the additional delay.
“To the best of my knowledge there has been no other communication,” Brown said.
The two-block project is an extension of a streetscape project for the area from Market to Chestnut streets completed in 2010 for $1.83 million. It took the city six months to complete construction. Both are being financed as part of the city’s 2014 voter-approved transportation bond.
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