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During lunchtime at Adams Morgan's Amsterdam Falafelshop, the cozy café is always buzzing and humming with customers chatting and chomping on pitas stuffed with fresh-made falafel and other fixings.
But outside, on 18th Street, it's buzzing and humming, too. Not to mention rattling, clattering and in some cases, slamming!
That's because construction crews are wrapping up the Adams Morgan Streetscape Project, which started, and began moving up 18th Street, in February of last year. The project includes a full makeover of 18th Street between Florida Avenue and Columbia Road: everything from smoother asphalt to improved gas and water service, to 71 new bike racks and 59 new trees.
Amsterdam Falafelshop owner Arianne Bennett says her own favorite improvement is the wider sidewalks.
"[Before the construction] I had one of the smallest sidewalk spaces on the block," she says. "At the time, I think we had 2-and-a-half feet between our front step and our tree. And so right now there's like 13 feet in front of us. And so there's no bottleneck, you can have strollers get through, you can have wheelchairs get through."
But Bennett says those wider sidewalks, and the other improvements, did come at a price, thanks to the jumble of construction equipment, traffic cones and jersey barriers that have been scattered about the 18th Street corridor.
In fact, she says sales-wise, "We have definitely had months where we were down, $15, $20, $25,000."
And she's not alone. In fact, nine businesses on 18th Street wound up applying for interest-free loans through the District's new Streetscape Loan Relief Fund.
"I think it's great we have one," Bennett says. "We've helped a couple of people with their application, and we're just grateful because that has not been available in the past to anybody. I think everybody hoped we could have gotten a grant, or a complete freebie in some way to help us compensate. But to have anything is a godsend because many neighborhoods have gone through this and had nothing available to them to borrow from to make it through the hard time."
One of the 18th Street businesses that applied to the fund is Crooked Beat Records, opened by D.C. native Bill Daly in 2004. Crooked Beat is on the southern end of the 18th Street strip, so Daly says he bore the brunt of the Streetscape Project's earliest days.
"We had like a bulldozer in front of our shop for what was it, for about eight months?" he recalls. "And they didn't have as many construction guys as they do now."
So, in terms of revenue at Crooked Beat, Daly says, "as soon as the construction started getting really heavy, it dropped starting last May. June, it dropped even more. July it dropped. And then August it dropped. And yeah, September was the worst--September it got to about 48 percent below what was normal. March and April, it started coming back to the normal levels. And the construction's further up the street now, so I think that's made a huge difference."
D.C. Councilmember Jim Graham represents Ward One, and authored the Streetscape Loan Relief Fund. He says, "We knew [the Streetscape Project] would be a massive trip to the dentist. I know it's been a great imposition on the businesses and customers and our residents. But we're almost done."
The Streetscape Project did encounter a delay along the way. As DDOT Project Manager Victor Egu explains, "the District issued what we call the NTP--Notice To Proceed--to the contractor on Feb. 22, 2011. It was supposed to run about 448 calendar days."
If you do the math, that makes for a completion date of May 15, 2012. So, clearly, things are a little off, time-wise. But money-wise, Egu says, the project is pretty much on track.
"The initial budget was about $9 million," he says. "But after the bids were opened, we were able to get down the cost to about $6.5 million."
Egu says those utility issues raised that figure by about $200,000 or $300,000, "which is not much. Which is still below the original projection of $9 million."
But the cost to the city is, of course, only one way to measure this project.
Kristen Barden, executive director of the Adams Morgan Partnership Business Improvement District, says she knows the project has been tough for many businesses on 18th. But, she adds, if you look at other Streetscape projects in Northwest D.C., like 14th Street's makeover in Columbia Heights, or P Street's big transformation, things could have been a whole lot worse.
"The businesses expressed a lot of reservations before the construction project started because they'd heard the horror stories of 14th Street, and they'd heard the horror stories about P Street," she says. "And the P Street Streetscape Project actually did result in about three or four businesses going under. And so for all the criticism of the Streetscape construction, we've been very fortunate that we didn't lose any businesses in Adams Morgan."
Barden owes this silver lining, in part, to all the advance planning on the Adams Morgan project; she says businesses had been in the loop about what was to come for several years.
Back at Amsterdam Falafelshop, Bennett says yes: that advance notice was a big help. All the same, she's eager to see the streetscaping done. Not just because it'll leave the neighborhood so beautiful, but also because she and her husband live over their business.
"It'll be nice not to wake up at 6:30 every morning," she says with a laugh, "[to the sound of] kah-chunk kah-chunk kah-chunk. Beep beep beep! Kah-chunk kah-chunk kah-chunk. Beep beep beep!"
Instead, she hopes, she'll hear a different sound: the chatting and laughing of visitors, old and new, to the neighborhood.
That, she says, will be music to her ears.
[Music: "Makeover" by Mark Mothersbaugh from The Sims 2 Soundtrack]
Photos: Adams Morgan Streetscape Project