How is St. Paul construction impacting businesses?

By MICHAEL TRAUTMANN RODRIGUEZ | October 24, 2019

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COURTESY OF WILL EDMONDS The construction on Saint Paul St. is intended to revitalize the streetscape, but business owners claim that it is affecting their sales.

University officials announced plans for a streetscape renovation project along Saint Paul Street between 31st and 33rd Streets this past March. Construction began in early April and is scheduled to finish in December. 

The streetscape project includes the addition of walking and bike paths to a median strip down the center of 33rd Street and improvements to the lighting and landscaping along the streets near the University’s East Gate, the main entrance to campus.

However, some business owners, community members and students have raised concerns about the project.

Carma Halterman, the owner of Carma’s Café, a local eatery serving fresh baked goods and other gourmet foods on 32nd Street between N. Charles Street and Saint Paul Street, expressed concerns about the negative impact the construction had on her sales.

The cafe usually is at its busiest during the spring and summer months, but the construction, Halterman said, had a major impact on its patronage.

“It was devastating to us. We have never had our sales dip -- our sales have constantly increased over the years -- and this spring and summer...sales dropped at least 30 percent, sometimes more than 30 percent, depending on what was going on over here,” Halterman said.

She also worries that the project will affect her sales in the long run.

“Right now, the primary impact of the construction is that people are avoiding Charles Village for six months, and that’s enough to change people’s behavior,” Halterman said. “With the construction, people are changing their traffic patterns. One of my concerns is that they are not going to change them back. I know for a fact people are just avoiding coming to Charles Village because it’s in their minds that it has been a mess for a long time.”

Linda Klouzal, an archivist at Hopkins Hospital, copied The News-Letter on an email she sent to University President Ronald J. Daniels in late September raising concerns about the disruption caused by the construction as well as questioning the efficiency of the work.

“Extended construction to improve the infrastructure, the streets and sidewalks and sewer, of Charles Village has had a dramatic negative impact on several small local businesses. The construction has been lengthy, loud, and extremely disruptive,” Klouzal wrote. “It is also possibly inept; for instance, we have seen one intersection where the same section of paving with bricks have been laid and ripped out several times.”

Halterman also observed what she saw as the inefficiency of the construction project.

“That crosswalk was dug up and traffic moved to one lane, no less than eight times. It had to be re-poured, repaved, dug up, over and over. That can’t be the most efficient way to do that. There had to have been a problem that they had to keep undoing,“ Halterman said.

Klouzal’s email emphasized Carma’s Cafe’s financial troubles, which she attributed to the construction.

“Our favorite local establishment in Baltimore is Carma’s Café. Chatting with the owner this morning — one of two hard working people who provide jobs, food and beverages with ingredients made and purchased from local companies, a lovely atmosphere for JHU students and locals — for the first time in 15 years, it appears that they will not make it due to the loss of money from lost business for a long time period,“ Klouzal wrote. “This area which would normally be bustling has become sadly quiet.”

In the last few months, several businesses in Charles Village have shut down, but the reasons for these closures are unclear. These now-shuttered businesses include Red Star, a relatively higher-scale restaurant, and Niwana, a sushi spot. 

The owner of Eddie’s Market, Jerry Gordon, said that his sales were also affected by the construction for a time, but that things were back to normal, for the most part.

“For the 12 weeks that the fence was up in front of our store, we took a serious decline in business, but that’s been already five weeks ago. Things are coming around and the work is progressing and it’s looking very good,” he said. “We’re very hopeful for the future.”

Halterman added that a number of other businesses likely suffered setbacks from the construction.

“What I can tell is about seven places have closed in the last six months,” she said. “Everybody is hurting, everybody is concerned, everybody is complaining about it.”

Emily Rosen, the general manager of Bird in Hand on 33rd Street, said that she felt lucky that the construction hadn’t impacted her business, but criticized the University’s seeming disregard for accessibility concerns.

“It’s been especially a nuisance because when there were fences cutting off half the sidewalk, it wasn’t ADA accessible. Wheelchairs couldn’t fit through. I had a woman with a double stroller with twins that couldn’t fit her stroller through,“ she said. “It has been more of a hassle for a lot of other businesses in the area than it will probably end up being worth.”

Karen Lancaster, assistant vice president of external relations for the office of communications, told The News-Letter in an email that the University was mindful of local businesses’ needs and questioned Halterman’s claim that businesses had shut down because of the streetscape construction.

“We are always sensitive to the impact of work upon our neighbors, especially in light of our goal to support development of the Charles Village Retail District. We are not aware of any businesses closing due to the construction,” Lancaster wrote. “Several businesses were already scheduled to close before the project began or over the summer, and we understand that one retailer closed as part of a national strategy decision.”

Gordon stated that he was involved in the planning of the construction alongside Hopkins officials, as a member of a neighborhood business committee. 

Lancaster confirmed the University’s involvement in community discussions about the construction.

“Hopkins regularly attends meetings in the Charles Village community, including those of the Charles Village Business Association, to keep local businesses up to date on construction activities and to work with them to reduce disruptions. The Project Team has also met individually with many of the owners,” she said.

While the University spoke to residents and local businesses about its plans for the streetscape project, a number of people felt left out of these discussions.

Halterman stated that the University should have done more to reach out to individual businesses. 

“I would like to see Hopkins as an institution interact more directly with the community rather than go through existing bureaucracy like the business association or the community association,“ she said.

Junior Elle Park added that she was upset that she hadn’t been able to express her opinion on the construction proposal when it was discussed initially.

“A lot of residents who live in Charles Village are Hopkins students so it would be beneficial if we had some easy way to get involved in planning,“ Park said. “Is the construction a good idea? Are the roads difficult for you to maneuver around Charles Village? If majority vote says no, I don’t see why [they should do it].”

Park detailed the manner in which the construction has affected her daily life.

“I live between St. Paul and N. Charles Street and every morning for the past two months I have woken up at seven in the morning and it won’t let me sleep,” she said. “Maybe it will be worth it, but I don’t see that turning out positively in my life so far. I just want to cross the crossroads without running into a traffic cone in the next year. I have pretty strong negative feelings about this, and I would like to sleep without listening to the sound of a drill waking me up.”

Other members of the Charles Village community expressed their hope that the finished streetscape will be a significant improvement. 

Gordon further expressed that he believes that once the construction is done, the community will be satisfied with the renovations.

“There’s going to be parking on both sides of that median,“ he said. “It’s going to be a very beautiful area and I think people will be very proud to be part of our Charles Village.”

Sophomore Julian Phelps said he believed the administration properly handled the construction. He added that the street had felt unstable before the construction.

“It is worth it. It is going to make [St. Paul Street] look really nice and more even,” he said. “I think they are doing the best they can — I honestly don’t see any other way they could do it.”

Other community members expressed ambivalence toward the construction. 

Halterman said that she was looking forward to the improved lighting, but questioned whether the other promised improvements were just empty promises.

“I see the possibilities after the project is completed, one of which is improved street lighting, which I am very excited about. But it was sold with the two-way traffic, improved parking, which I don’t really see how that is what manifested. In essence, they swapped a median with a more attractive median that has lights in it.”

Matthew Stevens, the daytime manager at Maxie’s, said that the construction might have had a minor negative impact, but expressed that he remains hopeful that the project would have beneficial results.

“People would rather not walk down, so they rather go to other places,” he said. “Hopefully it will help in the future because I feel like we will have better sidewalks and more traffic so I am hoping for the best.”

Although junior Andrea Thurnheer said that her commute to Hopkins had become less enjoyable, she is optimistic that the construction will pay off.

“When I am biking to class, it is super bumpy and annoying, but I think it will be good in the long run because the roads are really shitty right now, so it will be nice when they are better,“ she said.

Sophomore Andrea Newman-Rivera also looks forward to the construction’s completion.

“It is...a little inconvenient. Sometimes it is a little noisy,” she said. “But I think it will be nice when it’s done.”

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