Bank Street construction hits biz harder than expected

Published in the Ottawa Business Journal newspaper and website.
Aug. 7 2006

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Although provisions have been made to accommodate pedestrian traffic while Bank Street is under construction, small- and medium-sized businesses in the area say they are really feeling the pinch.

“The summer is usually the busiest time, but now it’s even slower than in the winter time,” says H. Agour of Shawarma Laguna. “I can tell it’s slower (even with only a few days of construction).”

The five-block stretch between Laurier and Wellington has been closed off since July 31. The move is part of $3.6-million project to reconstruct Bank Street’s underground water and sewage lines, and improve the appearance of its sidewalks north of Queen Street, according to Richard Holder, the senior project manager for infrastructure for the city.

“We’ve been involved with the Bank Street BIA for several years,” he says. “We’re very much aware (of the disruption to business) and have delayed construction until as late as possible.”

The business improvement area’s executive director, Gerry LePage, says the business community has been enjoying a good degree of co-operation from the city.

“A capital project of this magnitude is intrusive of course, but… (the city) has shortened and condensed the time period as a trade off for closing Bank Street,” he say.

Mr. LePage says the Bank Street Promenade area is fortunate because it’s not a “destination location” like Westboro, which has suffered from massive construction.

“We’ve got 85,000 captivated consumers,” Mr. LePage says, explaining that most of the people in the Bank Street area travel by foot and are less likely to be affected by the closure of the street.

However, despite the efforts of the BIA and the city, many of the businesses along the affected stretch say they are experiencing greater losses than expected, and hope the construction won’t drag on like it did in other areas of the city.

“It’s very, very slow, and you can tell from the drink and shawarma sales, and daily closing totals,” says Alex Akil of Zooba Convenience and Shawarma at Bank and Queen. “I wasn’t expecting it to be this bad. I thought it would be a 30 per cent reduction (in revenues), but it’s more than that; there’s a big difference.”

Roy Zhou of Roviky Shoes at Bank and Laurier says business has been cut to a third because of the construction, as his store relies heavily on walk-by customers.

“Lunch time and rush hour are usually the busiest times, but the noise affects pedestrians and nobody passes by,” he says, adding that the pedestrian walkways along the side of the closed-off area only help so much.

“We’re lucky this construction (along this stretch) is only going on for two months,” he says.

Mr. LePage says business owners were well-informed about the construction beforehand, and adds that there’s lots that can be done to minimize the loss of revenue, such as cutting costs by reducing the number of staff employed.

“Any time there’s a business interruption, obviously it’s not a positive impact on revenues,” he says. “But these are entrepreneurs. They’re well-informed. It’s only if you try to conduct business as usual (that there’ll be a problem).”

Mr. LePage says this reconstruction is important to the process of rebranding Bank Street as a major business area.

“It’s been a long time coming; this project signifies the last of 10-15 years of strategic planning,” he says. “We didn’t just go, ‘We’re going to put in a prettier trashcan’ and hope the world would beat a path to our door, but we took sustainable economic practices into account.”

Most businesses and customers acknowledge the facelift is necessary, but hope the construction won’t take longer than scheduled.

“If it’s a month I can handle it, but if it’s five months I may have to close down,” says Yoav Dvaja, owner of Bread & Sons Bakery, which is just south of the closed-off area.

The bakery is one of the stores expecting to be affected by the construction in a later phase of the reconstruction project.

“I am welcoming the improvement, but I hope it’s fast,” Mr. Dvaja says. “If I have to close before it happens, there’s no point.”

Wyatt Boyd of Invisible Cinema off Bank and Lisgar agrees with Mr. Dvaja’s assessment: “In the short run, it’s going to kill; some cool businesses that it would be nice to see stick around won’t make it,” he says.

Mr. Boyd says he would just rather have the city perform all the reconstruction at once, rather than “stretch out the misery.”

“You don’t want to walk along a nice part, and then it gets gross, and then it gets nice again,” he says, adding, “Girls wear high heels – they’re not going to walk (on gravel while the sidewalk is being finished).”

Despite these teething woes, Mr. LePage says this is a positive step towards improving the business environment on Bank Street, and states that they have incorporated all the best-case practices from the construction experiences of Ottawa South, Westboro, and Somerset Street.

“This is a turning point in the revitalization of Bank Street,” he says.

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