EVERETT — Downtown business owners expected a two-block stretch of Rucker between Everett and Hewitt avenues to reopen to traffic by October.
But the work is behind schedule, they said, and months of construction work and a closed street have taken a toll on downtown businesses, their owners and employees along Rucker Avenue.
The Rucker Renewal Project to improve the area for redevelopment and pedestrians began in July and is set for completion by spring.
So far, a single full block between Everett Avenue and California Street has reopened, and only last week. Two other sections are closed in one direction, and the entirety of Hewitt and Rucker is closed.
A stretch of Hoyt Avenue also reopened in November.
Owners of Bargreen’s Coffee Company, the Vintage Cafe and Amante Pizza & Pasta spoke at the Everett City Council meeting Dec. 4, about growing weary, even desperate, after lost revenue.
Their woes and worries were understood by Councilman Scott Murphy, who works at Goldfinch Brothers at 2812 Rucker Ave.
“I know the project has drug on longer than, I think, any of us thought it would,” he said at the council meeting.
The city attributes the delays to wet weather, abandoned underground utilities and unsuitable soil.
Those unforeseen discoveries “added 14 working days to the contract,” said Tom Hood, a senior engineer working on the streetscape project.
Another 13 days were lost due to wet weather. “Those are typically days in which there’s too much rain to pour concrete,” Hood said.
Business has dropped at AAMCO Transmissions & Total Car Care at 2801 Rucker Ave.
“General repairs are 70% of our business, but that’s dropped significantly, by 30% to 40%,” said owner Michael Kim, who bought the auto repair business a little more than a year ago. “I don’t get those walk-in customers anymore. A third of our customers have disappeared.”
The work along the four blocks will reduce the number of lanes, add a tree-lined median and replace an aging water line. The $9.6 million state- and city-funded project includes tearing up sidewalks and the pavement to replace aging utilities, modify intersections and add trees. One lane is being removed in each direction north of Hewitt Avenue.
The Rucker Renewal is being done in three phases. It started with the most-northern blocks, from Everett to Hewitt. But traffic has been rerouted away from the area to West Marine View Drive, just a couple of blocks west of Rucker, since July.
Work to prepare for the new sidewalks from California Street to Hewitt was underway by the contractor. The east sidewalk from Hewitt to Wall Street was set for demolition, as well.
The owners of Amante Pizza & Pasta, 1409 Hewitt Ave., like the project’s goals but have qualms about the way construction has gone. Their situation has been complicated by the fact nearby Hoyt Avenue, too, was closed for a time.
“We were told it would be done in sections,” said Daniela Stoyanova, whose mother, Mariela, owns the restaurant. “Shut the street down and then open it up, once it was finished, but everything has stayed shut.”
Per the contract, no more than one full section can be closed at a time, Everett Public Works spokesperson Kathleen Baxter said.
But partial-block closures have complicated access to businesses. Amante customers have complained that they can’t find parking to pick up a pizza or dine in.
“It almost seems like we’re quarantined,” Stoyanova said. “Some days I do not have a single person coming to the dining room.”
The restaurant employs about a dozen workers. “I am really struggling to pay them, especially my servers who depend on tips,” Stoyanova said.
The block that stretches from California Street to Hewitt is expected to open at the end of January, project manager Hood said.
The city says the project has run into unexpected problems. Though crews explored the ground through pot-holing to determine conditions, once it was excavated more fully they found an old wooden water line, voids, oil tanks and other problems that required more work and fill than expected.
“That is a 100-year-old roadway. Each of those presented a challenge,” Hood said.
“The unsuitable soils alone required a week dedicated to excavation and fill time,” Baxter wrote in an email. “It is not possible to know exactly what is there until you start tearing it up.”
In the interim, the city made sidewalk signs to direct people to some of the businesses, including AAMCO and Prestige Espresso.
AAMCO owner Kim has been trying to route customers through an alley behind the business because the shop’s main entrance fronts Rucker, which is closed.
But the detour has been a challenge.
“I’ve had customers call multiple times to tell me they just can’t find us,” Kim said.
The winter months — November, December and January — are already the slowest months of the year, Kim said. “It’s never busy for auto repair,” he said. “When we see a drop in volume, in terms of car counts coming in, it just kills us.”
Commuters can expect more intermittent lane closures during the project, set to conclude in May. Baxter said pedestrian access to businesses should be available during construction.