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Streetscape project concerns merchants

Kevin Dunn says that if all goes well, most of the improvements to Beach Drive NE will be completed by early December.

"We'll be finishing up the landscaping in the parkways, but that won't get in the way much," he said.

Dunn, manager of development and property management for the city, said this portion of the project was originally scheduled for 1996-97, "but with the opening of the Stouffer Vinoy, the Yacht Club, the Historical Museum and Johnston of Florida and other shops, it was moved up."

The streetscaping project, which started in August, includes Bayshore Drive and Beach Drive NE from Fifth Avenue to Second Avenue.

The $1.2-million project is the first phase of a long-term waterfront improvement plan that will eventually cost an estimated $27-million.

Still, it doesn't sit well with merchants in the area.

Motorists and pedestrians now are being rerouted past the intersections of Fifth and Fourth avenues and Beach Drive NE. For the time being, there is no parking in those areas.

Beach Drive merchants recently learned that Straub Park would be dark for the holidays due to electrical work being done in the project. They also found nearby streets probably will be torn up at the peak of the Christmas shopping season.

"I would think that if it's a matter of a couple of weeks difference, why don't they wait?" said Bruce Watters of Bruce Watters Jewelers, 224 Beach Drive NE. "Every merchant depends on Dec. 25, and then with the festivities on The Pier, to have that intersection torn up just seems unreasonable."

"I was unaware that the construction was going to last into Christmas (shopping season)" said Tina Rondolino Douglass manager of Johnston of Florida at Second Avenue and Beach Drive NE. "Naturally, we would be very upset. It would be disruptive to business. We will try to work with the city. I know they are trying to make it conducive to shopping, but it's a shame they couldn't do it this summer."

John Erickson, who for 23 years has owned and operated the Straw Goat gift shop at 130 Beach Drive NE, has problems with the concept, though his business is not directly affected.

"I think it's an example of where the city and the small business person should communicate a little better," said Erickson. "We have a lot of good ideas, but the city never seems to tap into them. I'm sure it will look nice when they finish. But they could say, "We can make the traffic flow or make it slow. We would have said, "Let's make it comfortable to drive down here.' Parking is everything."

Dunn said most of the work is underground, "and that's why it takes so long." Once completed, parts of Beach Drive NE will take on a different appearance, with cantilevered poles supporting traffic lights, corners that jut into the intersections and light posts that resemble fire hydrants.

"It is our intent to slow down vehicular traffic," Dunn said. "We want to have it safe for pedestrians."

A layer of asphalt on Beach Drive NE will smooth bumps created by the decorative crosswalks. The Fifth Avenue NE intersection almost is complete, said Dunn. The Second Avenue NE intersections at Bayshore and Beach drives are scheduled next and the Third Avenue and Beach Drive NE intersection is last.

"The streetscape was part of the original agreement with Bay Plaza several years ago," said John Habgood, internal services administrator for the city. "It is now being managed by city staff instead of Bay Plaza. I think they wanted to reduce Bay Plaza's role, to have them concentrate on retail and let the city do this with the parks department. We're in a holding pattern with Bay Plaza until the market recovers."

Most of the streetscape is being paid for by a 1-cent sales tax approved by voters in 1989 for waterfront parks improvement.