Anybody who’s inched a car past the exhaust-spewing dump trucks and giant yellow backhoes lining the intersection of McIntire Road and the U.S. 250 Bypass knows what a traffic headache it can be.
But for the nearly 50 small businesses in McIntire Plaza, the enormous construction site in their front yard has worsened from headache to migraine, as customers have dwindled and the hard times threaten to continue until the project’s planned completion in the summer of 2015.
“Lunch used to be our busiest time where we’d make all of our profit,” said C’ville Coffee owner Toan Nguyen, who has reduced staff shifts and dipped into his personal savings in recent months to keep his business alive. For 15 years, C’ville Coffee has been a popular lunch and meeting spot thanks to its central location, easy access, and on-site parking. The construction has changed that, and it’s changing customer behavior.
“People only have an hour for lunch,” he said. “Are they going to chance it by coming down here? Some days you can’t even make a left to turn into the Plaza.”
Things aren’t any better for La Linea Bella! framing shop or for Great Harvest Bread Co. The owners of both businesses report sales have plummeted by 40 percent since road construction began.
“We pour our blood into these businesses every day,” said La Linea Bella! owner Beate Casati. “For me, it’s been a huge difference since last summer.”
And then there’s the nonprofit Charlottes-ville Fencing Alliance, which has had to rely on its programs in Staunton and Waynesboro to keep it afloat as it struggles to pay the $4,000 monthly rent at the Plaza while members complain they can’t even get to the club for their fencing classes.
“People will get stuck in traffic for 45 minutes and they’re only 300 yards from the building,” said Jaime Faine, the Alliance’s executive director. “They end up missing the classes that they’re paying for. It’s incredibly frustrating.”
First proposed more than 45 years ago, the construction project at the much-used intersection will connect the new Meadow Creek Parkway with McIntire Road and ultimately should reduce traffic congestion on both Rio Road and Route 29 North by providing a direct connection from Rio near Charlottesville Albemarle Technical Education Center to Downtown Charlottesville. The county finished its portion of the road in January 2012, and the city broke ground in spring 2013. The new traffic pattern at McIntire and 250 includes elimination of the traffic light on 250 and is designed to improve traffic flow and reduce accidents at the intersection. It should ultimately benefit Plaza businesses—if they can survive that long.
Nguyen and others believe the city and the Plaza landlord, Woodard Properties, could help ease tenants’ suffering, but their requests for assistance have thus far gone unanswered, and some feel they’re paying a personal price for a community project.
“The saddest part for me is I’m essentially being asked to put my life and my business on hold while the whole project goes on,” said Matt Monson, owner of Great Harvest, who notes that the construction inspector for the project’s engineering firm, Rummel, Klepper & Kahl, told him the heaviest construction—and worst traffic impact—is ahead of schedule but still won’t be done before the end of the year. In the meantime, Monson has had to increase the catering portion of his business in an effort to offset his losses.
Casati and several other business owners have secured a meeting with City Manager Maurice Jones this week to discuss possible remedies for the construction-related business woes. Nguyen, who is a founder of the micro-loan-providing Community Investment Collaborative, believes the city could offer businesses in the Plaza a series of low-interest loans to help them keep afloat during the construction process. A similar plea was made by businesses around the Jefferson Park Avenue Bridge, which was overhauled during a nearly 18-month-long construction process in 2011 and 2012 that tore deeply into the pockets of businesses like Wayside Chicken, Durty Nelly’s and JPA Fast Mart. But while the city funded a $100,000 marketing campaign for Downtown Mall businesses during the rebricking project in 2009, JPA businesses were left to their own devices after the city said it couldn’t provide assistance. Wayside—like Great Harvest Bakery and Nguyen’s C’ville Coffee—was forced to switch much of its focus to catering during construction.
In an emailed response to C-VILLE regarding the Plaza businesses, Jones said the city was aware of business owners’ concerns.
“The utility work near the McIntire/Harris intersection was causing access issues so we addressed those with the contractor,” Jones wrote, also mentioning the upcoming meeting with Plaza business owners. “I can’t offer possible solutions until I hear from them and have a chance to consider our options,” he said.
Nguyen told C-VILLE that he had also asked Woodard Properties to give him a temporary break on his store’s rent. Woodard Property management sent Plaza tenants an email explaining that there was nothing it could do to help. Instead, the company said, they should take their concerns up with the city.
“They say, ‘That’s tough. That’s your problem. What does that have to do with us?’” said Nguyen of Woodard’s response to their plight. Keith Woodard, the principal of the property management company, did not respond to a request for comment,
Some of the small-business owners at McIntire Plaza feel these problems could have been foreseen. And while the city has offered tax incentives to woo big businesses including CFA Institute and World Strides to Charlottesville, small-business owners at the Plaza don’t feel like they’re getting the same treatment.
“I really feel like the city did not take into account at all the impact on us,” said Faine. “And I feel that if we had been larger businesses with more money to throw around, they would have considered the impact much more than they have. It’s hard not to be a little bitter towards the city about all of this.”