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Shaw learns to cope

(Published May 3, 1999)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

Digging a hole 65 feet deep, three blocks long and two blocks wide causes all sorts of problems for the people who have to live and work next to it.

Just ask Willie Flowers. Heís the man who walks around the neighborhood every day listening to their complaints. He is the business and resident liaison for the Washington Convention Center Authority and every day he tries to do what he can to make construction of the new convention center less unpleasant for residents and merchants in the Shaw neighborhood.

Flowers, a soft-spoken and unflappably friendly guy, listens to all the complaints seriously. Complaints range from too much dust to trucks working on the site as early as 5:30 in the morning. One of the more frequent complaints right now concerns the lack of sidewalks on 9th Street and M Street due to utility line work going on in those areas. Heavy machinery rolling through the neighborhood, loud equipment located too close to residences, and businesses losing customers because they canít park on 9th Street anymore are just a few more problems.

Abey Kassa owns Four Seasons bakery on 9th Street. He estimates heís lost 30 percent of his business since crews dug up the street last fall to move water and sewer pipes around the construction site. He lost his access to the alley behind his store, which means customers canít pick up orders anymore, so he has to deliver all of his orders. Two of his employees quit, he said, because they got tired of carrying customersí orders (and all the bakeryís garbage) down the street.

Ed Fleming, who owns Modern Liquors at L and 9th Streets NW, just sits and shakes his head when asked how business is going. He doesnít like to talk about it. Hemmed in by the utility work that has torn up both streets, his customers are now mainly the construction workers who come in to buy candy bars and juice and the few brave regulars who are willing to weave their way through the fences and barriers to reach his store.

"We donít want to sugar-coat the fact that this is a difficult process," said Tony Robinson, WCCAís director of public affairs.

He said WCCA is trying to help affected businesses apply for a business-loss grant program through the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. The agency can provide grants up to $20,000 to help cover business losses. Robinson said WCCA will match those grants.

Robinsonís office began meeting with a task force of area residents nearly two months ago to try to iron out issues related to the construction. Robinson said he expects the construction impact task force to keep meeting for the full four years it will take to complete the convention center. He said once the utility work is finished later this summer, most of the construction will be confined to the site and he said that should cause less direct impact on businesses and residents.

The $635 million convention center is the largest construction project ever undertaken by the District. Utility relocation began late last year and excavation work began in April. The construction will go on for four years if the project goes as planned, with digging on the site slated to last through next summer. When the digging is done, about 130,000 truckloads of dirt will travel through the neighborhood.

"We get a lot of complaints about dust," Robinson said. "Itís the biggest hole in the history of D.C."

Dust became such a problem for Immaculate Conception School at the north end of the construction site that windows couldnít be opened without dust and dirt blowing into the classrooms. So WCCA bought air conditioning for the school so it wouldnít have to open the windows.

Not all problems are solved that easily or quickly. Charles Russell owns a six-unit apartment building at 9th and L streets and has berated Flowers in no uncertain terms about the noisy generators on both sides of his building. Flowers said they have tried to build sound mufflers for them and he asked the subcontractor to move them farther from the residence. But the generators are needed for the work being done at the corner and they are still there, a fact that Russell doesnít let Flowers forget.

Residents and merchants who show up to the weekly meetings at the Carnegie Library raise concerns about public safety and other issues. Residents have also pushed the convention center authority to keep them better informed of construction activity at the site. Some complained they were not told that pile driving was going to begin recently and vented their displeasure about the early morning noise.

Robinson said his office now puts out more detailed two-week schedules of construction activity to keep residents apprised. An open house has been scheduled for May 25 from 4 to 6 p.m. at the WCCA offices inside Carnegie Library at the south end of the construction site. Robinson said he also is scheduling a site tour and town hall for residents meeting for the second week in May.

And every day, Willie Flowers walks around the site talking to residents and business owners, listening to their complaints.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator