Residents, businesses brace for Haywood Street construction

WHERE THE SIDEWALK ENDS: Construction to replace Haywood Street's blue slate sidewalks, sewer and water infrastructure, tree wells and other amenities is scheduled to start in March and is expected to last through September. Photo by Brooke Randle

Haywood Street is arguably one of downtown Asheville’s busiest economic corridors. Flanked by Patton Avenue and Pritchard Park at its southern end and the newly renamed Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville to the north, the street is home to dozens of businesses, including restaurants, clothing boutiques and bars.

But the iconic thoroughfare will be getting a makeover this year. The Haywood Streetscape and Infrastructure Improvement Project kicks off this month and promises to replace the street’s crumbling blue slate sidewalks, fill in existing potholes, update the stormwater and sewer infrastructure, and install new benches and tree wells.

“We’ve seen Haywood Street grow from just a few stores on up,” notes Sue Foley, who has co-owned The Chocolate Fetish with her husband, Bill, since 2001. “The bluestone is hard for our customers to walk on, and quite honestly it’s dangerous, because it’s not being repaired. We also move handcarts with tons of chocolate and tons of boxes on the sidewalk, and it just tears up our handcarts.”

But while the renovations are sure to bring a breath of fresh air to the area, Dana Frankel, the city’s downtown development specialist, says the nine-month project will come at a cost to local businesses and residents dependent on accessibility and foot traffic.

“We’ve known for a long time that the sidewalk on Haywood Street really needs to be replaced: We’ve heard from the community for years,” says Frankel. “The areas of sidewalk that have the slate or the bluestone, they’re in horrible condition. But this is going to be disruptive, and it’s going to look bad. So we want to be honest with people about that — and, of course, address their concerns.”

Nuts and bolts

Initially, the focus was solely on replacing Haywood Street’s sidewalks, says Dustin Clemens, program manager for downtown capital projects. But the city, he says, saw an opportunity to tie in the work with the upcoming sewer and waterline maintenance.

“We always reach out to other utility companies and make sure that they don’t have any overlapping projects that might either cause our project to get disrupted right after it’s built or just cause undue construction impacts to businesses and residents,” Clemens explains.

Shaun Armistead, an engineer with the Metropolitan Sewerage District of Buncombe County, says Haywood Street was “pretty high” on the agency’s priority list, citing the infrastructure’s age and the need for modernization as factors arguing for replacement.

On Nov. 12, Asheville City Council approved a cost-sharing agreement with MSD for the $4.7 million project, which will also include water and sewer improvements on portions of College and Walnut streets. Both MSD and the city have hired local construction companies to do the work, says Armistead. The companies in question have also been involved in the transportation improvement project in the River Arts District.

The current work, he explains, will be completed in phases, beginning with the line replacements on portions of Walnut and College streets in January. That phase is expected to take about seven weeks and will include lane and street closures; it’s not yet known how long they will last.

“There’s a portion of Walnut Street that’s so narrow right now, we won’t be able to keep traffic moving on it during that period of time,” says Armistead. “There will be some limited disruptions on College as well, and until we have a contractor on-site and we know exactly where some of those utilities are, we can’t tell what that duration is going to be.”

OLD TOWN ROAD: Construction to replace sewer and water infrastructure on portions of College Street is already underway. Photo by Brooke Randle

After that work is finished, construction crews will turn their attention to Haywood Street, replacing sewer and water infrastructure before proceeding with the sidewalk restoration and amenities. That work, says Clemens, is slated to start at the beginning of March after the Southern Conference basketball tournament wraps up at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center Asheville (formerly the U.S. Cellular Center). Businesses and residents, he says, can expect to see ongoing lane and sidewalk closures on Haywood Street from Vanderbilt Place to College Street as crews tackle the work in sections.

“Probably right after the SOCON tournament, we will change the traffic pattern on Haywood Street to be one direction headed south for vehicles,” Clemens explains. “That will allow vehicles to still access the site and to get through the area and also give us some space to detour pedestrians when we need to and obviously create enough safe work area for the contractor to get his work done.”

Detours ahead

Clemens maintains that despite the inevitable lane and sidewalk closures, the city and MSD have sequenced the various phases to keep as much of the area as possible open to pedestrians and vehicles. The entire process is expected to last at least into September, though adverse weather conditions and other unforeseen circumstances could extend the timeline, he cautions.

And while the construction may cause headaches for residents who live in the area, businesses along Haywood will probably bear the brunt of the impact.

“We’re looking at possibly an off-site pickup location. We can’t just afford to go to another space for months and months because our production is here as well as our store,” says Foley of The Chocolate Fetish. “We’re involved with food tours that come here every day: It’s just a lot of things that are impacted where we are.”

Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe, meanwhile, “will be affected at every stage, because of the corner we’re on,” owner Gretchen Horn says about her business, which sits at the intersection of Haywood and Walnut streets. “We’re taking a wait-and-see approach: There’s a timeline sent out, but we don’t know how strictly they’re going to adhere to that. It’s hard to really know when the impact will hit.”

Over the last couple of years, Frankel says, the city has used flyers, email updates and more than 15 community engagement opportunities to keep residents and business owners informed and garner feedback. She adds that while a construction project spanning much of Asheville’s tourist season is far from ideal, it’s harder to pour asphalt and concrete in cold weather. The hope, notes Frankel, is that the project will be completed by the time leaf season begins.

“We know that there’s a lot of busy times, but a lot of businesses see October as their busiest month of the year, and we wanted to take advantage of the slower months, which are really just January through March,” she explains.

Spreading the word

Foot traffic “is our store,” says Daniel Areyzaga, who owns Charmed boutique at 46 Haywood St. “We rely on pedestrian traffic to look in the windows, come in the shop and buy. We’re not looking forward to the downturn: We’re going to have to make a labor reduction. We can’t support the same people in the shop that we did last year.”

To help mitigate the revenue loss, Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Downtown Association, says the city has allocated $10,750 to the organization to develop a promotional campaign aimed at drawing potential customers to Haywood Street during the construction process. Employing what she calls “fun and creative messaging,” the campaign is expected to include signs and banners indicating that the vendors and restaurants are open; the nonprofit is also considering providing parking vouchers and organizing promotional events.

“We want to let people know that businesses are open during the project and encourage them to visit,” notes Rogers. “We’re likely to use a combination of light-pole banners, A-frames, sidewalk decals and construction fence banners.”

Not everyone shares her enthusiasm, however.

“I’ve seen a couple examples that the city is putting forward or proposing,” says Areyzaga. “But let’s face it, if you’re blocking off a sidewalk and you’re dealing with a bunch of dust, it’s not like people are going to be walking down to these areas.”

Rogers says the city is also considering temporarily halting construction during profitable holidays such as Valentine’s Day, so businesses can cash in.

Get ready

Frankel says the construction will typically take place between 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday, with occasional the Saturday to compensate for weather delays. An on-site project manager will be available during those hours to address the needs of residents and business owners. The city also plans to continue providing monthly updates to keep the community informed about what to expect during each stage of construction. Many merchants, meanwhile, say they’re just planning to ride out the unavoidable disruption.

“We’ve been here for 17 years, and we will survive,” Foley says. “We will probably depend on our internet sales even more than normal and hope that both the locals downtown and the tourists continue to come and visit us and see what we do and try our products.”

Areyzaga sounds a similar note, saying, “We’re going to just keep on trucking along. We know it’s a sacrifice that we have to make, but it is for the greater good.”

And over at Malaprop’s, Horn says she’s counting on support from longtime customers to get through the next nine months.

“Luckily, we have a very faithful, loyal community that still comes in even if the weather’s bad. So that’s why I’m not as nervous as I could be. We’ll just be prepared and want people to know that we’re going to be open at every stage of it. We’re open, we’re here: Come on in.”

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