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ART project failing to deliver on promises, business owners say

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

Susan Ricker was never thrilled about the Albuquerque Rapid Transit project.

But the silver lining was knowing that when it was done, she’d have new, wider sidewalks in front of her Nob Hill costume shop, making the area more pedestrian and family friendly.

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Susan Ricker, owner of Off Broadway, a Nob Hill vintage and costume boutique, says she was promised new sidewalks in front of her shop as part of ART construction. Those sidewalks never materialized. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Then, she received the March 1 email informing her that the curbs and sidewalks in front of several businesses, including her Off Broadway store, weren’t being replaced. Ricker, who has operated her eclectic shop in Nob Hill for more than 30 years, was upset.

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“Suddenly, we’re not going to have a (new) sidewalk. I’m going to have this pitted, rutted mess out here,” she said.

“I feel I’ve been lied to. We have been lied to all along.”

Ricker is one of many Central Avenue merchants frustrated with the construction mess outside their front doors, the substantial drop in business due to people avoiding the area, and what they see as a series of broken promises from the city, including a months-long delay in making loans available to struggling businesses along the construction route.

City officials say they’re working on the loan program and hope to have money available for the businesses in the near future. As for the sidewalks in Nob Hill that aren’t being widened, a top city administrator says it’s just not safe to widen them given the limited right of way available.

And even if that weren’t a factor, said Michael Riordan, the city’s chief operations officer, widening the sidewalks now would delay the project’s completion date by at least four to six months and add about $500,000 to the price tag.

“We’re trying to limit the amount of time we’re on Central Avenue, not extend it, so at this time we’re not in favor of doing this project,” Riordan told city councilors last week.

ART will transform Central Avenue into a rapid transit corridor with a nine-mile stretch of bus-only lanes and canopy-covered bus stations.

Mayor Richard Berry has said he believes the project will help inject new life into Central Avenue. His administration points to projects in excess of $300 million in building permit value that have been announced since ART went into project development. Some of those projects are publicly funded.

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City officials are banking on nearly $70 million in federal funding for the project, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year. The City Council approved the project last year by a 7-2 vote.

Wider sidewalks

But even one of the councilors who voted in favor of the project says that some Nob Hill businesses aren’t getting what they were promised.

District 6 Councilor Pat Davis said during last week’s council meeting that the neighborhood associations and business associations – particularly in the Nob Hill corridor – endorsed the ART project after receiving assurances that the businesses would be provided wider sidewalks that would encourage more commerce and walkability in the Nob Hill area.

Davis is sponsoring a resolution requiring that in the area of Central Avenue, between Girard and Aliso, total lane widths be reduced by 2 feet in each direction to allow for 2 additional feet of sidewalk throughout the corridor. The resolution also pledges up to $500,000 in District 6 set-aside funds to pay for the change.

“I think it’s important that we do what we promised to do for the folks who are most impacted by this and are having the hardest problem,” Davis told his colleagues.

The council deferred action on the bill until its March 20 meeting, asking Davis to try to work something out with the administration. Davis said he met with Riordan on Friday.

Riordan told the Journal that the city has researched its notes from neighborhood meetings, and the current design “almost exactly mirrors the plans that we developed in 2014.”

“The project includes more than 4,000 feet of widened sidewalks in Nob Hill,” he said. “This includes some entire blocks such as Tulane to Amherst, Hermosa to Aliso, and Montclaire to Graceland. When we are complete, more than 80 percent of the sidewalks in Nob Hill will be greater than 8-feet wide while maintaining parking.”

Loan program delay

Charles Akkad, the owner of Olympia Cafe, agrees with Ricker that the city isn’t living up to its promises, although the big issue for him is the loan program promised to small businesses along the ART route.

The city announced the loan fund more than seven months ago, with a goal of implementing the program by early fall. It later said the program would be unveiled during the last week of February, and the money would be available March 1.

Those timelines came and went, and Akkad, who has already laid off two of his workers and cut the hours for his remaining staff, is still waiting.

“Whatever reserves we had, we’ve spent,” Akkad said, noting that there’s still months left to go on the project.

Gary Oppedahl, the city’s economic development director, said Friday that the city is working on final legal documents every day and that the goal now is to be able to accept applications by the end of this week.

Akkad said his business needs the lifeline the city promised, although he said he’d keep his doors open, whatever it takes.

“This is my livelihood,” he said. “I have to survive, one way or another.”

Like Ricker, Akkad is frustrated.

“They haven’t fulfilled any of (their promises), and they promised time and again,” he said.

And it’s not just the sidewalks and loan program they’re upset about.

Akkad said he was assured that the trees near his business wouldn’t be cut down, but they were.

Business owners also raised concerns about motorists not being able to turn left through much of Central and about how difficult it is for customers to navigate through the construction zone.

And Ricker and other Nob Hill business owners say they were assured that ART construction wouldn’t start until after December of 2016, given that the fourth quarter is typically the busiest time of year for most businesses.

But crews began ripping up the median in October, they said. Riordan said the city made a commitment not to have active construction work between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

“Some work started before Thanksgiving, but all work was stopped before the moratorium and all lanes, parking and sidewalks were opened as promised during the holiday season,” he said.

As for the trees that were cut down, the project team states that in order to maintain westbound left turn access onto Yale, a small part of the median in front of Olympia Cafe had to be removed. But the ART team says Akkad asked for two parking spots to be added in front of his restaurant, which the design team was able to secure.

Several merchants along the ART route are also skeptical that the nearly $70 million in federal funding for the project is going to materialize, particularly now that Donald Trump is president. Berry, who was in Washington, D.C., earlier this month meeting with other mayors and administration officials, said he has heard nothing to indicate that the funding won’t materialize.

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