Last Thursday was gorgeous. Sunny. Dry. Slight breeze. Seemed like a perfect day for, say, working outside on a construction project.
“I don’t see a single person anywhere,” said Jeff Williams, owner and manager of Circle Cleaners.
He was looking out his glass front door at the half-finished Bluebonnet Circle. The yearlong project was supposed to have been completed a month ago. Instead, half the circle remains unfinished. Orange traffic cones are everywhere. Dust blows up each time a car passes by. And fewer motorists seem to be driving around the circle these days due to the upheaval.
“Some days, you’ll have 20 [construction workers] out here, and some days you won’t have one,” Williams said. “I would think that since this is a pretty major thoroughfare, they would want to hammer it out.”
Two-dozen small businesses line the Bluebonnet Circle urban village just south of TCU, near University Drive. The circle was built in 1929, and a park was established in the center in the early 1950s. The surrounding strip-retail structures include a mixture of retail- and service-oriented businesses selling jewelry, liquor, smoking accessories, and antiques. Several eating and drinking establishments such as Fred’s Texas Cafe and Mellow Mushroom also do business.
City officials announced early last year that water and sewer lines would be replaced and the street rebuilt. The existing water lines dated to the 1940s, and existing sewer lines were even older, a city official said.
When the project was announced, some business owners questioned why it would take a year to replace those lines and rebuild the street. Thirteen months later, they’re still confused.
“Now they’re saying the end of October, but we’re thinking its probably going to be January,” said Parker Daniel, considering the slow progress so far and the amount of work that remains.
Daniel and his wife, Kate Daniel, own Fort Worth iPhone Repair. They say city officials have over-promised and under-delivered.
“The entire time, they have said whatever they felt would appease us in the moment and then went on to do whatever they wanted to do,” she said. “If you are going to look me in the eyes and tell me something and then go and do something completely different, people deserve to know that.”
The improvements will cost taxpayers almost $3 million to complete, money taken from the city’s water and sewer fund and a 2014 bond program.
A couple of issues contributed to the delayed construction timeline, city spokesperson Cindy Vasquez said. Paving work slated to begin in May was delayed a month to accommodate the heavy traffic anticipated by the Colonial Golf Tournament from May 21 to 27.
“Given that there are so many restaurants on Bluebonnet Circle, we decided to wait until after the Colonial, so this might lessen the impact to the businesses on the circle,” she said.
Heavy rains during late July and early August – typically dry months in these parts – delayed progress as well, she said.
The construction crew has installed new 12-inch water lines and sewer lines, removed existing pavement, and finished replacing the asphalt with concrete paving on the inside lane near the central park. Next, workers will finish building the outside lane with concrete, rebuild existing concrete driveways and sidewalks, and mark the pavement for parking, she said.
Business owners have complained about having to replace filters on a weekly basis on their large, industrial-size air conditioners because of the steady cloud of dust each day. The owners can contact the city to seek reimbursement in some instances, Vasquez said.
“We sent information to the property owners with links they need to submit a claim through Risk Management [a division of the Human Resources Department] and request reimbursements for any damages they can prove that the construction work may have caused,” she said.
Businesses that rely on the nearby TCU students to boost their profit margins were hoping that the circle would be completed before school resumed last week. Instead, the business owners are uncertain when things will get back to normal.
The Daniels say their revenues are down about 20 percent since the construction began.
“There is not much we can do but hope and pray and wait it out,” Parker said.
Williams, who owns the dry cleaners, said his business is down about 20 percent as well.
Several people I spoke with said they’d heard that Fred’s would be closing its doors after its lease runs out due to the construction. Restaurant co-owner Quincy Wallace blasted that rumor as hogwash. Business is down “substantially,” he said, his parking has been reduced by a third, dust is everywhere, the street is a mess, and construction is “a big pain in the tailbone,” but Fred’s will survive and thrive.
One thing that might make the pain more endurable is the planned addition of new parking spaces on the inside of the circle next to the park, he said.
“The drawings I saw had an additional 200 or 300 parking spaces around the circle,” he said
Still, several business owners say curbside parking will fail because the circle is too narrow and the traffic moving too fast to accommodate cars trying to pull in and out of spaces. They predict the project will revert to its previous two lanes without curbside parking. Vasquez said the new parking spaces remain part of the design.
Kate Daniel sees the confusion, slow progress, and sketchy information as confirmation that city leaders rarely consider things from the perspective of small business owners. That lack of empathy is a citywide problem, she said.
“Fort Worth is a hard place for small businesses now because of all the new construction and how expensive everything is,” she said. “It’s been said over and over that we want to keep these small businesses in this community and we care about the community. If you’re going to say that and do something completely different, I want people to know about that. I care about these other businesses on the circle. These businesses support people’s families directly. These are not big corporations lining their pockets. These are good people just trying to take care of the people they love, and that’s it.”