All Torn Up About Lead and Coal
Business owners are shocked by the roadwork, but the city says they should have seen it coming
By Sam Adams
No one was prepared for this renovation. That’s the prevailing response from business owners on Lead who, for the next 18-months, will watch 35 blocks in their neighborhood undergo extensive construction. But city representatives are quick to say that they have been communicating with residents and businesses about the road rehab—for more than 20 years.
"This didn't happen overnight. Nothing this big would happen overnight," says Mark Motsko, spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Development. He says that the overhaul of Lead and Coal has been in the works since 1989.
Five neighborhood associations came to the city with the request to transform the one-ways from speedy thoroughfares to streets with more of a "neighborhood feel," Motsko says. The city hired a design consultant in 2006, Wilson and Company. Two years later, Lead and Coal were downsized from three lanes to two.
In 2007 and 2009, voters approved about $4 million in city bonds for the renovation, Motsko says. The bulk of the funding comes from federal stimulus dollars handed down by Gov. Bill Richardson.
In May, bidding for the construction contract began. In September, that contract was won by Albuquerque Underground, Inc., which, along with its 12 potential subcontractors, will be paid about $26,500,000. The goals are to make the roads more aesthetically pleasing and pedestrian friendly, to install a new drainage system and to upgrade traffic light technology.
The city's camp treats the project as an extension of a long-running, well-documented neighborhood enrichment plan. But the Lead business owners say that it was an overnight shock that will challenge their customer traffic and revenue for 18 months, assuming they can stay open that long.
Nan and John Morningstar have owned Free Radicals, a punk clothing boutique at the corner of Lead and Yale, for eight years. About two weeks before roadwork began on Nov. 8, someone from the construction company came to the store asking if their parking lot could be rented out. The Morningstars say that was the first time they'd heard the project was actually moving forward.
Several city representatives point out that a media campaign was mounted. Nan Morningstar says she knew something was coming—she just didn’t know what or when. "It's been in the papers on and off for a couple years," Morningstar says, "But the papers have been really nondescript about whether or not it was actually gonna happen, and what was gonna happen."
Katie Calico of the The Talking Fountain Gallery first heard of the construction from an attendee at one of her art openings. "We knew about two days before it started," she says.
Policy Analyst Diane Dolan at Councilor Isaac Benton's office says that public outreach would have been "handled by the Department of Municipal Development and their consultants and contractors." And those organizations maintain that they have been communicating with businesses and residents.
According to a report e-mailed to the Alibi by PR company Cooney, Watson and Associates, there was an Oct. 13 meeting. None of the three businesses the Alibi spoke with say they knew about it before it took place. Beyond that, the most recent public outreach occurred in May 2009.
Project Manager Savina Garcia refers to a "contact drive" in the summer of 2009 where a task force, made up mostly of the neighborhood associations that are pushing the project, went door-to-door to inform residents and businesses about the construction.
As for 2010, it does not appear that the city, its consultants or the neighborhood organizations made any contact with Lead's small business owners to let them know of the project. "There's always a lull in there,” Garcia says. “We made our best effort."
Building owners were notified, but because many of the businesses lease their property, they were not directly informed.
"If landlords don't tell residents or lessees, that's not something we can control," says Councilor Rey Garduño.
This chain of deferral mirrors another communications process Lead business owners have had to face: They don't know how to reach city officials to discuss their problems.
Calico says the PR representatives have been helpful, and the Morningstars say the same of the construction crews they’ve talked to. But when it comes to voicing concerns to the city, none of the business owners are quite sure where to turn.
"I've had no contact with the city at all,” Nan Morningstar says. “Anytime I've e-mailed them, they've forwarded my e-mails to someone for the construction company. The city has been invisible as far as I can tell. Although I've had excellent response from the construction companies. They've been really helpful."
"Everything Is Gone"
Daryoush Varyani opened the Saffron Café, a Persian restaurant, in December 2009. He’s not sure where to turn. "He doesn't know to whom he can contact," says his cousin, Payam Hasanzadeh, a waiter at Saffron who interprets for Varyani.
Varyani says he has seen a 70 percent decline in revenue over the last month. Before the construction, business was, “very good," Varyani says, and the restaurant saw more customers every day. "After they bring the construction, everything is gone," he adds.
Varyani has been speaking with an attorney, Josh Simms. "The city goes around and does these projects and gives very little thought about the impact they might have on a business," Simms says.
While the other shopkeepers aren't resorting to such drastic approaches, the Morningstars have their reasons to worry. Like Varyani, customers are phoning the shop, trying to find out if it’s still possible to access their business.
"People are calling to ask us: How do I get to you during the construction?" Nan Morningstar says. "I've had local customers ask if I can mail them merchandise, if they can just do it over the phone because they don't want to come down."
As of press time, Councilor Benton had only received four complaints from people affected by the construction. "As far as we're concerned, there's not much of an effect because we haven't been told otherwise," says Dolan, Benton's policy analyst.
Both Benton and Garduño say they are open to setting up meetings with their constituents. "I am very willing to get together with any of those folks," Garduño says. "I can make sure their concerns are heard."
Motsko and Watson point to a website, leadandcoal.com, that gives detailed daily plans for the construction process. It shows how the area has been cordoned off into four zones that will be worked on one at a time, first for nine months on Coal, and then for nine months on Lead. At the project's end, both streets will once again be one-ways with two lanes.
The Morningstars say this website might have been more valuable had they been notified about it earlier. "It's chock-full of information," says Nan, "but we didn't receive any mail-outs or door tags or any sort of information that there was somewhere to go to know that construction was imminent."
Beyond the communication problems is a larger issue of whether this is the best use for millions in state-allocated funds. Councilor Benton isn't so sure.
"If I would have had my druthers, I would have split and used that $25 million around the district," says Benton. He adds that the Lead and Coal project "wouldn't have been my top priority."
John Morningstar agrees, saying that while he is not against improvements, "I'm not convinced that what they're claiming are needs are actual, legitimate concerns. I'm not convinced that these things were actually wrong."
One reason the neighborhood alliances and the city give for the spending is the reputation of the streets as speeding areas.
"What they're getting at the end of the project will be really, really great," Motsko says. "Very pedestrian friendly. Traffic will still be able to flow through the area, but it won't feel like a Nascar race."
Nan Morningstar isn’t so sure. "Perhaps I'm a layman, but I don't understand how better drainage and wider sidewalks is gonna keep people from speeding," she says. "There's still two lanes on timed traffic lights, and I don't think it has anything to do with speed."
Business owners like the Morningstars are more concerned with how the traffic is now than how it was before the construction began. Drivers can't make lefts onto the smaller streets along Lead. Calico points to the area in front of her store. "People flip U-turns in this parking lot, sometimes like seven or eight in an hour," she says. The Morningstars report having the same problem. Calico had a meeting with the PR reps to discuss what could be done. They said they would bring barrels to block her driveway.
Motsko explains that left turns would lead to congested traffic. He says that because Lead is a two-way now, with only one lane in each direction, anyone trying to turn left would hold up the drivers behind them while they waited for oncoming traffic to cease. "If a lot of people want to turn left, then you have gridlock, and it's just a mess."
People will realize that Lead and Coal traffic can be avoided by taking Lomas, Central or Gibson, he adds. "It's gonna take some time to change those attitudes and to change those behaviors, and it'll happen."
Still, Motsko says he doesn't think diverting traffic takes business away from Lead. "You'll still be able to get to the businesses," Motsko says. If people want a service on Lead, he adds, they will seek it out.
In the event that business does dip, the Morningstars want to know if the city would offer financial aid. "Any sort of help or reimbursement or matching funds or anything—tax breaks to businesses," Nan Morningstar says. But where other states have the ability to supplement affected businesses with advertising funds, Dolan and Motsko say that that is not possible in New Mexico. The "city can't under state law pay for advertising for those businesses," Dolan says, citing the state constitution's anti-donation clause.
In lieu of these shortcomings, Dolan and Motsko both point to a business directory on leadandcoal.com. They say it will help promote all businesses affected by the construction. Dolan says it should be available soon.
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