CLEARWATER — Nearly a year after road construction began, a stretch of Cleveland Street just east of Clearwater's downtown core still resembles a ripped-up moonscape.
Some businesses there are furious at the city for what they view as the slow pace of the roadwork. The project on Cleveland between Myrtle and Missouri avenues has run into unexpected delays and now won't be finished until April.
"People are scared to come here. Nobody wants to sit outside because there's too much dirt," says Gennaro DeLiso, head chef at Casanova Restaurant & Lounge, which has an outdoor dining patio at 811 Cleveland St. "We have waiters and bartenders who are going to be out on the street."
He gestured out the window, where four construction workers in orange vests were smoking cigarettes and talking on cellphones. On that day, there was no other activity happening along three blocks of torn-up street.
Clearwater is extending its downtown streetscaping project eastward along Cleveland, turning it from a four-lane street into a heavily landscaped two-lane street with a median. It's a cheaper version of what the city did on Cleveland between Myrtle and Osceola avenues in 2006 and 2007.
The goal of the $2.9 million project is to foster redevelopment by making the street a pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare with wide sidewalks, new palm trees and lighting.
However, construction crews hit a snag while digging up the street to put in new water mains. Beneath the asphalt, they found a spongy layer of peat that had to be replaced with fill.
"We worried about how the road would hold up if we didn't take it out. It's just not stable," said Tim Kurtz, the city's engineering project manager. "Go to Home Depot or Lowe's and ask for a bag of peat; it's non-decomposed vegetative matter. This area was probably a wetland at one time."
The discovery was unexpected because, after all, Cleveland Street has been there for a long time. But the city found that the state had added several inches of asphalt to the street as the ground settled over time. Cleveland Street, which is now a city street, used to be State Road 60 until a new Memorial Causeway Bridge was built and the state route moved south to Court and Chestnut streets.
"This has caused us a bit of a delay," said Geri Campos Lopez, the city's director of economic development. The project will be finished two months late.
However, some restaurants on Cleveland think the roadwork should have been done by now.
At a sub shop called Mr. Submarine-Mr. Gyros at 1010 Cleveland, owners Henry and Tony Saydi said business is down 30 percent and they've laid off two workers. The Saydi cousins, who have owned the place for 23 years, say they're working 14-hour days to survive.
"Why do they only have six people working on the job?" Henry Saydi said, gesturing outside.
The number of workers assigned to the street project has fluctuated; some days there have been roughly 20 workers on the job, other days only a handful.
Jeff Stevenson, project manager for MTM Contractors, said the company reduced the number of workers at the construction site while a geotechnical engineer investigated how much unstable ground was beneath the street. Now that this problem has been fixed, he said, there are several crews working there.
But Raffaele Rugo, owner of Casanova Restaurant, is still upset with the city over the delays. In his view, closing the street until April will kill his entire snowbird-and-tourist season.
"They're killing us. We're down 45 percent from last year to this year," he said. "Customers can't find us. Their GPS won't take them here. They get frustrated and don't come in."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151.