Chef Martin Heuser has worked in many chic restaurants internationally and thought he had chosen the perfect location for his own place at 19th and Main streets in May 2012.
He and his wife, Katrin, loved the downtown Crossroads neighborhood vibe, and their contemporary German establishment, Affare, was growing a devoted customer base.
“We were on a roll,” he said.
Then, beginning seven months ago, the business encountered a roadblock — streetcar construction.
And that’s the conundrum of the streetcar project. While new customers may be zipping on rail to their doors in a year, some downtown businesses worry whether they’ll be able to hang on until then.
For drivers, orange cones have multiplied throughout the 2-mile corridor from the river to Union Station. Every week, new intersections and streets are pockmarked with deep holes and metal plates, sometimes detouring motorists away from retailers’ front doors.
And during the holidays, businesses that hoped to attract new patrons from throughout the metro area are now trying just to retain their loyal clientele.
They knew it would be inconvenient, but they say this is worse than the city originally described.
The problem: Instead of just putting in streetcar track, like some other cities, Kansas City is also replacing water and sewer lines, most of them more than 100 years old.
“I don’t have a good answer for the pain some of these small businesses are experiencing,” said City Councilman Russ Johnson, a prime mover behind the streetcar project.
For now, the Downtown Council, convention and tourism officials, the city and neighborhood advocates are mobilizing for a big “Open for Business” promotional campaign, encouraging people to come downtown for the holidays while pointing out ways to navigate the orange cones and find parking.
“We need to move past the perception that it’s an inconvenience,” said Ronnie Burt, chief executive officer of VisitKC, the convention and visitors association. “We need to get people to reconnect with the desire to patronize these businesses.”
While it can seem downtown is mostly big banks and corporations, it’s also home to small local shops. KC Streetcar Constructors has counted at least 100 specialty retailers, restaurants, bars, bakeries, coffee shops and others directly affected by the construction.
To be sure, it’s not unusual for many types of roadway construction, whether Interstate 35 or Johnson Drive, to adversely affect businesses.
But it would have been better in this case if they at least had been warned about the duration of the headaches, said Diane Botwin, who owns the building where Affare and the Gown Gallery are located.
Botwin said she attended pre-construction meetings and was told to prepare for perhaps three months of terrible aggravation and heavy construction as the work was done in three-block segments and moved on. That’s not how it has played out.
“The entirety of the line has been torn up for the entire time,” she said. “I know it’s all going to be great when it’s over, but I just am afraid when you ask a small local entrepreneurial community to carry the weight of that on their backs, it is asking an awful lot.”
City officials say they are doing everything they can to communicate about construction effects and mitigate them. The most disruptive work should be finished soon in the Crossroads and the River Market, said Meghan Jansen, the streetcar constructors’ public involvement representative, who is in daily contact with businesses along the two-mile route.
“We’re kind of in the thick of it right now,” she said, adding that track work south of Truman Road should all be in by early February. “We’re going to see a lot of this lift.”
Johnson acknowledges that discussions with property owners and tenants about the construction often focused on the actual laying of the track.
Turns out, that’s the easiest part of the work. It takes about a month per three-block segment.
But unlike cities such as Portland, Ore., where streetcar construction went relatively swiftly, Kansas City made the decision to replace all the ancient water and sewer lines underneath the streetcar route. That meant digging giant holes to get to the water infrastructure and coordinating with 27 other utilities to move their lines and cables.
It’s one of the most complex city construction projects in recent memory, said Andy Shively, engineering officer with Kansas City Water Services.
“I would say working in the downtown loop is one of the most challenging areas in the city to work,” he said. “Traffic control does add another level of intricacy.”
But Shively said that with the $24 million investment, it only made sense to replace water mains averaging more than 110 years old and sewer lines that in some cases dated to 1879. These lines frequently break and have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in claims in recent years due to flooded basements and other damage.
So that restoration effort created waves of work along the entire route, Jansen said. First, utilities like AT&T and KCP&L relocated and in some cases replaced their lines, and some of that work took longer than expected.
Shively insists the water work is on schedule and says he always knew it would take a year to complete the entire 2-mile stretch, through April 2015. Businesses say they were never told that.
The work has been most disruptive at the north and south ends of the route, according to Rick Usher, the assistant city manager who is working to address small-business concerns. That’s because the area within the downtown loop has wider streets and sidewalks and people are more accustomed to riding the bus or parking in garages and walking.
The water main replacements are about 50 percent complete throughout the entire route and should be finished in a few weeks in the Crossroads, Jansen said. Then follows the track work, which only involves digging down 18 inches instead of 10 feet.
She said crews have worked throughout the frigid November weather and have often worked nights or weekends to minimize daytime disruptions.
Track work should be finished in the Crossroads by early February, she said, and some track already is installed in the River Market.
Many business representatives are reluctant to talk about their struggles, fearing it might create a downhill spiral. One said it does no good to complain — they can’t change the project.
Still, some say they are doing fine despite the construction, and they praise Jansen and the contractors for excellent communication and coordination.
Anton Kotar, owner of Anton’s Taproom at 16th and Main streets, said his lunch business has suffered but his dinner business is growing and that makes up for the lunch loss. He has encouraged construction workers to order food from his business and said one contractor has scheduled a Christmas party at Kotar’s establishment.
But Michael Smith, owner of Michael Smith’s Restaurant and Extra Virgin KC at 1900 Main St., said the effect on parking is horrendous.
“The entire front of my street in front of my building is blocked off,” Smith said this past week. “Every time I turn around, they’re digging something.”
He thinks his restaurant’s seven-year run with a good reputation will keep people coming, but he has ended lunch service at Michael Smith’s because people can’t get in and out fast enough.
The Rieger Hotel Grill & Exchange also ended its lunch service. Affare continues to serve both lunch and dinner on weekdays.
Mayor Sly James has eaten at some of the affected restaurants, including Affare, although Heuser joked with him that he needed to come in more frequently.
“I’ve personally made a point to go to some of those establishments to do my part to help them get through these growing pains that the streetcar is experiencing,” James said. “I know this is a difficult time for some of our local businesses, and I hope they know we are working hard to be a good partner as we take a big leap forward together.”
Some businesses have wondered, though, why the city doesn’t have a grant fund or other direct financial assistance to get them over the hump of streetcar construction, since they are supporting the project with their property and sales taxes. But no such fund has been created.
Usher said the city is contributing to a microloan fund and a few businesses may pursue that option, but the interest rates are 8 to 13 percent, which can be daunting.
Sharon Miller, owner of the Gown Gallery, said she and other businesses are trying to lure new people downtown, but the project is making it difficult.
“Customers will know of the construction and just try to avoid it, especially in retail,” she said.
Suzie Aron, president of the Crossroads Community Association, is asking for help from bigger companies and employers in the area, encouraging them to support the restaurants for lunch and dinner and to patronize other retailers that give Crossroads its character and charm.
“We want to keep everybody alive,” Aron said.
It hasn’t been easy in the River Market area either, but crowds still come and sales are averaging about 10 percent above last year in the City Market, said Deb Churchill, the market’s vice president and property manager. She said it’s been very disruptive on a daily basis, but contractors have listened to concerns and made adjustments when they could.
Parking is often at a premium in the River Market, so the city is paying for staff needed to offer free parking in a garage at 300 Wyandotte St. on weekends.
There’s no similar garage in the Crossroads. Katrin Heuser of Affare has asked if the city could provide free valet parking service or a shuttle during streetcar construction, but so far that assistance hasn’t come.
The most tangible help so far is coming from neighborhood and business advocates. At a Wednesday brainstorming meeting at Affare, they talked about a new holiday marketing campaign and other ways to boost business.
The Downtown Council has helped create a smartphone app about downtown establishments and parking along the route, with information at www.kcmo.gov/streetcar/apps.
Visit KC also will promote the businesses to locals and tourists at www.visitkc.com. And Aron and others plan to recruit a crowd of people for lunch at Crossroads restaurants on Dec. 3 and possibly in future weeks.
Downtown Council marketing director Mike Hurd was at Wednesday’s meeting and said the downtown community is motivated to make sure all the businesses weather this difficult patch.
“Let’s get out and support them while times are tough,” he said. “We take this very seriously and want to do our best to make sure they not only survive, but thrive.”
2 miles of Main Street are under construction as KC prepares for streetcars, but the project also involves replacing aging water and sewer lines.
113 years is the average age of downtown water lines, with 15,500 feet being replaced.
130 years is the average age of sewer lines installed as long ago as 1879, with 16,000 feet being replaced.