Left in the dark – King Street businesses organize

Kirsten Miller, who, with her mother, owns Butterfield Garage on King Street, told Historic City News editor Michael Gold yesterday that the Florida Department of Transportation and City of St Augustine should give the community more time to plan before starting a project she says would be devastating for everyone downtown.

Miller, and her mother, Jan Miller, say that they are still recovering from other recent road projects in the area; including Malaga Street and Riberia Street; both projects completed by Masci General Contractors Inc, of Port Orange.

Last month, Historic City News reported that the Florida Department of Transportation had again hired Masci — this time to complete the next phase of the King Street drainage improvement project. On February 18, 2012, we reported that the additional work was “scheduled to begin in March”.

HCN was told that the approximately $1.5 million project was expected to be complete by “early 2013” and would extend down King Street; from Malaga Street, where the prior drainage reconstruction project finished in May 2011, to Markland Place, near the post office.

The Florida Department of Transportation held a lightly attended construction “open house” on Monday, February 27th at St Augustine City Hall. A formal presentation was not made, but Florida Department of Transportation and construction staff were available to answer questions and address traffic impacts.

“The short notice caught everyone sleeping,” Bruce Maguire told reporters. He and his wife, Virginia Whetstone-Maguire, operate the chocolate factory and an adjacent café near Butterfield Garage.

Maguire made some inquiries and began to find that he was not alone — in fact, he became instrumental in organizing a petition campaign of residents, business owners, and others who travel downtown and object to the rushed project; which they say is not adequately vetted.

Maguire reports that at various locations along King and its adjoining streets, hundreds of people have signed up — petitioning the City of St Augustine to intervene in the project until several essential issues are ironed out. Maguire says these petitions will be presented to commissioners at their regularly scheduled meeting Monday evening.

Dana Mickler has recently relocated her business from North City to a store within the Butterfield Garage building — in fact, she was in the middle of her “grand opening” when she learned of the impending loss of one of the principal factors in her decision to relocate downtown; now, threatening to shutter her doors before she gets them completely opened.

When asked, Mickler, who operates Mane de Leon Salon and says she believes all the businesses along King Street need time to build, told reporters, “Communication is the key!”

Mike Theodosion and his wife Estelle operate the popular Theo’s Restaurant on King Street, just over the San Sebastian Bridge.

They attended a meeting yesterday afternoon held at Butterfield Garage with Mickler, Maguire, the Millers and about 30 other neighbors around the redeveloping entrance corridor to the city.

The Theodosions said that, “after 30 months of road construction on King Street, we need a break from the traffic disruption.” Everyone in attendance, including one City Commissioner and two senior members of the City Administration team, seemed inclined to agree.

The Malaga Street intersection with King Street was chronically beset with flooding — passing traffic during and after a storm could expect to cause a wake, if the major east-west artery was even passable.

Carmelo’s Marketplace, had just undergone a complete redesign and rebuild from its humble beginnings as Connor’s Shell Service; the last remaining full-service gas station, tire and auto repair downtown.

Owner Joe Tringali, who was also at the meeting, admits he had some concerns when he learned that only days after he launched his rebuild he discovered that Malaga Street and part of King Street was going to be shut down. Tringali says that he is still trying to recover from that loss.

He doesn’t want to see his potential customers “detoured”. Tringali told Historic City News “This project needs to be addressed after the US-1 bridge project is completed in order to better handle the traffic.”

Well known and respected real estate brokers representing Saltwater Property Group, also with offices on King Street at the intersection of Granada Street, shared their observations of the work proposed.

Irene Arriola told reporters “I spend a great deal of time in my car.” Arriola pointed out that it’s not just businesses waiting on customers to come to them, but also employees and residents living downtown who need to get out of the city to work.

“The current level of gridlock on King Street, both eastbound and westbound, and its impact on the Bridge of Lions makes ingress and egress extremely challenging,” Arriola said. “In the face of all the current projects, a coordinated and well laid out plan with public input needs to be engineered.”

Arriola added that this is especially true “if there are future plans for the entry corridor”; a reference to the city purchase and demolition of a dilapidated car wash at the intersection of King Street and Ponce de Leon Boulevard and rumored activity on the San Sebastian Harbor development.

Joe Hatin, also a broker at Saltwater Property Group, also expressed concerns with the timing, telling Historic City News, “We need appropriate time to prepare for the economic impact that this project will create.”

Hatin echoed the experience of other businesses represented at the meeting when he said, “The past and present bridge projects within the city have negatively impacted existing local and tourist related businesses.”

Hatin pointed to one observation in his own business, which he shared. “We have experienced an uptick in our local economy in 2011,” Hatin said. “We must continue that momentum through 2015 and the 450th Commemoration.”

Before City Manager John Regan got up to speak, Jimmy Faulkner expressed an opinion that seemed to permeate all the conversations going on around the room as the meeting was preparing to convene.

Faulkner said, “What concerns me, the City has acted as if they were not aware that we exist.” Faulkner believes that is the wrong attitude and relationship between city administration and the citizens.

“We have to plan out lives,” Faulkner told reporters. “Planning like this is scary.”

Sandra Parks owns Anastasia Books on Granada Street.

She is often outspoken on local community issues and is a familiar face; both at meetings of citizen groups and before government bodies. This should come as no surprise, since she is a lifetime resident and her father, Dick Parks, was a commissioner here. Parks was brought up in a home where she learned about politics and the political process from an early age.

She was engaged in conversation with various other business owners in attendance, but didn’t rise to address the group — preferring to focus her attention on what the City Manager had to say. Parks did speak on the issue in a Jacksonville television station interview earlier this week.

She told Historic City News yesterday, simply, “Delay to 2016”. Parks specifically mentioned one point that several have said is an essential part of any reconstruction or repair project — underground utilities.

Heather Call, owner of the Giggling Gator on King Street, arrived at the meeting promptly at 3:30 p.m. so as not to miss any of the discussion.

Call has commented publically regarding her surprise and has not been bashful about her objections to starting such an intensive project immediately.

Her business is on the south side of King Street and she says she will be negatively impacted if construction halts the eastbound flow of traffic as has been proposed.

“King Street is the lifeline to the City,” Call told reporters.

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