A project intended to produce long-term results for the Benson business district has been nothing but a short-term headache for many local establishments east of 60th Street.
Construction began about two weeks ago on the first phase of the Benson business district improvement project, which will renovate the intersection of Maple Street, 58th Street and Northwest Radial by converting it from a series of one-way merges to a more conventional T-shaped intersection.
The $560,000 project aims to make the intersection safer for pedestrians, and add parking on Northwest Radial, new landscaping and a sign welcoming people to Benson, said Omaha Public Works project manager Matt Shimerdla. A similar project at the western entrance to the neighborhood, near 63rd Street and Northwest Radial, is planned for 2015.
But some businesses between 58th and 60th Streets on Maple Street say they have been negatively affected by lower traffic flow and lack of access to their businesses caused by the eastbound lane closures on Maple and related water main work.
Thredrice Jones, manager at the Jiffy Lube on Maple Street, said his shop went from serving 15 to 17 cars per day to serving about five per day now that construction has started.
He said he has cut employee shifts by at least one hour every day because of the decrease in business.
Shimerdla said he understands the inconvenience to area businesses. He said Public Works makes a consistent effort to get projects done as quickly as possible by offering incentives to contractors that finish work in a timely manner.
Ana Brito, owner of Fast Alterations and Tailoring, said she has seen a decrease in business because there's nowhere for her customers to park. Brito's business relies on street parking, but with the eastbound lanes on Maple closed, her customers have been parking in Jiffy Lube's parking lot, which is next door.
“(Customers) tell me, 'Oh no, you are in the middle of that mess? I'm not going to park in there,'” Brito said. Many of her customers are elderly, she said, and they aren't able to walk very far to drop off and pick up their garments.
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“It's affecting my mailman. It's affecting everybody in here,” Brito said of the construction.
Jones said he has been more than happy to allow Brito's customers to park in the shop's lot.
Candid Russell, manager at the Tobacco Hut across the street, estimated her business was losing 200 to 400 customers per day because of the construction. Customers driving westbound on Maple can access the store easily, but those going eastbound must drive up Northwest Radial and turn around. Russell said she had been advising customers to access the store via the gas station next door.
“We just try to guide them the best way we can,” Russell said. “We encourage them to stock up so they don't have to come through the construction as often.”
Jones of Jiffy Lube said construction crews started tearing up his driveway Monday, making it accessible only from a one-way alley. He said the water main work also has meant his business was without running water at least one day for a couple of hours.
He said that he is seeing a bit of an increase in business now that area residents are figuring out what's open and what's closed.
“I'm starting to see a little turnaround now, as my existing customers who are familiar with the neighborhood know how to use the back streets and the alleys to get to us,” Jones said.
Project manager Shimerdla said the construction, which is being paid for in part by state grant money and transportation safety funds, was coordinated with the Metropolitan Utilities District, which needed to replace aging water mains in the area. The MUD work extends from Northwest Radial to just west of 59th Street, Shimerdla said, and is expected to take about 40 days. After that, the eastbound lanes will be repaved and westbound lanes will close.
Shimerdla said through traffic going east is currently being detoured to 60th Street. But local traffic, including patrons of the businesses on Maple Street, can access the eastbound lanes up to the point of construction, just west of 59th Street.
“Our goal is to always try and maximize the efficiency of the contractor,” Shimerdla said. He said the recent wet weather has temporarily stalled progress, but work is still expected to wrap up in mid-July.
Benson area City Councilman Pete Festersen said the renovation is a major construction project that will produce great long-term results for every business in Benson, despite the short-term inconveniences.
“I know that Public Works and the contractor are working hard to minimize disruption in the meantime, and I'll continue to encourage them to do so,” Festersen said.
But a manager at the Sinclair gas station next door to Tobacco Hut said his business won't benefit from increased foot traffic and the work is just a hassle that won't necessarily help his business. He gave his name only as John.
Jones said he thinks contractors have tried to keep access to the shop as open as they can, and have been communicative about the next stages of the project in order to allow workers to prepare. He said he recognizes that the long-term outcome will be good, but getting there has been “a pain.”
“When it's done, I'm sure we'll have a different outlook, but right now it's just having a mostly negative impact on business.”