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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

North Front Street block opens with free parking … for now

The first phase of the Front Street Streetscape is nearly complete and open now to traffic. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — After six months of construction crews and closed-off streets limiting foot traffic in the 200 block of North Front Street, the “road closed” signage and accompanying orange cones should come down by early evening Thursday.

The city’s $3.5-million Front Street Streetscape, a collaboration with Cape Fear Public Utility Authority, began in April after its start was delayed by three months. It was supposed to wrap by September but has been extended further due to supply chain issues and unforeseen circumstances surrounding utility connections.

READ MORE: Downtown business owner battles city (again) over condemning building, ownership of decrepit retaining wall

In phase one, it required closing off North Front between Chestnut and Grace streets for streetscape contractor T.A. Loving to replace underground pipes, pour new sidewalks, install granite curbing and improve the lighting and landscaping. By 6 p.m. Thursday, phase one will be complete as crews have moved onto phase two in the 300 block between Grace and Walnut streets.

The rumor mill among a handful of anxious business owners — who have experienced a financial hit from the construction and lack of customers — was that the city could have opened the road last week. A handful of businesses corroborated they heard the government entity wanted to wait for the parking meters to be installed instead to get the revenue.

City spokesperson Dylan Lee said that is not true.

“Not sure who they talked to; they did not get that info from myself or the project manager,” he said. “We are opening the street now because we were able to do so safely and it is a good thing. We were not waiting for the meters to open the street.”

On Wednesday, meters still were not installed, but the city sent an email to more than 30 impacted businesses, along with members of Wilmington Downtown Inc. and the Downtown Business Alliance:

“The 200 block of N. Front Street will open to vehicular traffic and parking tomorrow, Thursday, October 13. The City’s parking contractor will be reinstalling the parking meters in the near future. Until that time, the on-street parking spaces in this block will be free of charge with a strict two-hour parking limit between the regular enforcement hours of 9:00 am and 6:30 pm.”

Lee explained the plan all along was to have the sidewalks ready for pedestrians, though the streets would not be open to vehicles, by Friday, Oct. 7, for Riverfest.

“The workflow was designed to accommodate this,” he said. “And that is what happened.”

The city did not provide an exact date for when the meters — for 26 vehicles and three motorcycle spaces — will be installed. New Elements Gallery manager Daphne Cole said Thursday she saw bricks being ripped up and metal poles positioned — likely the first step.

“But we were not really told anything,” Cole said. She also indicated New Elements didn’t receive many email updates about the streetscape’s progress.

“If we wanted to know what was going on, we asked the workers,” she said.

Still, Cole said it appears the trouble may be worth it.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Nothing about it is bad as far as what they did. It will pay off in the long run.”

In the midst of construction, at least one business has closed, Local 910 and an optometrist office, while others have reported a drop in revenue. 

Cole can identify at least one $5,000 sale the gallery missed out on due to the construction. A couple traveled from Raleigh to purchase a piece of artwork, she said, but there was no easy way for the wheelchair-bound wife to access the store safely.

“They turned around and drove home,” Cole explained.

Smoke Box manager Robbin Emarn said the project has presented a “domino effect” of financial hurdles for businesses to overcome, coming out of a pandemic and related shutdowns.

“It’s been pretty rough, especially seeing people don’t know where to go; people had to walk down halfway, then into a construction zone and back into our building. They couldn’t find their way,” she said.

Emarn added foot traffic slowed “significantly.”

Crews are putting the finishing touches on the 200 block, power washing and cleaning the sidewalks and storefronts. The city plans to plant 15 trees as well over the next two to three weeks once the grates arrive.

The Grace and Front street intersection will be open through the next phase, though the Walnut and Front street intersection will close. City officials originally said the project is on schedule to be complete by the end of November; however, by Friday, Oct. 14, the project manager relayed to the city, it’s likely to be done by December, Lee said.

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