By Arthur Hirsch, The Baltimore Sun
8:11 PM EST, December 19, 2012
City officials on Wednesday removed orange construction cones and barrels from two blocks of East Monument Street that had been swallowed by a huge sinkhole this summer, unveiled an "Open for Business" sign on a lamppost and marked the end of a five-month, $7 million repair job.
"It's just been completely devastating for the businesses here," said Kristina Williams, manager of East Monument Main Street, an organization run by the city, merchants and the Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition.
The project was "one of the biggest" of its kind the city has done, and the $7 million price does not include new utility and phone lines put in by Baltimore Gas and Electric and Verizon, city Public Works spokesman Kurt L. Kocher said.
"It's been a long and tough journey for the residents and businesses in this area," said city Public Works Director Alfred H. Foxx, standing at a lectern on the freshly poured asphalt near East Monument and Patterson Park Avenue. Beneath the pavement and to his left and right were hundreds of feet of newly lined storm drain, water and sewer lines, new sidewalks, street, curbs and gutters.
While the street is improved above and below ground, the shutdown has been hard on its merchants.
The sinkhole closed two blocks to vehicle traffic, but Williams said the emergency really affected four blocks that are home to 170 businesses. As far as she knows, just two went out of business, but some were closed during repairs and others saw trade fall by more than half.
She was standing inside Wig Warehouse, where dozens of white Styrofoam heads stared from a top shelf in stark baldness. Their hair, and much of the rest of the store's stock, went to a shop the owner opened in Catonsville in hopes of keeping cash flowing, hanging on along with other merchants as repairs stretched from summer to the threshold of winter.
Manager Susan Muhando said the store laid off three employees, the selection of 636 wig styles fell to about 100, and much of what is available was sharply discounted to draw customers.
"Everything was full here," Muhando said, pointing to empty shelves, including a row of bald wig dummies. As heavy equipment rattled the ground during construction, the stock on the shelves often shook and heads literally rolled, she said.
The city made improvements as well as repairs, but the work is separate from a long-range plan to upgrade the three-part underground utility system, which includes more than 6,200 miles of water, sewer and stormwater pipe and tunnels, Kocher said.
The city expects water main repairs alone to cost about $300 million over the next five years, as the schedule calls for replacing 20 miles of line each year, building up to 40 miles a year, and then maintaining that pace.
Rudolph S. Chow, head of the Bureau of Water and Wastewater, said "it will take many, many years before we see the failure rate" change for the better.
He was talking about the string of water main and storm drain breaks in the past few months, as structures that were installed in the last 100 years or earlier reached the limit of their working life.
The failure of a 120-year-old storm drain under East Monument Street that caused the street collapse on July 25 took place days after a 20-inch water main broke under Light Street, forcing that major downtown thoroughfare to close between Baltimore and Lombard streets. Hours after the Light Street break, a 6-inch main ruptured under Fleet Street in Fells Point. Early last month, water main breaks closed parts of North Charles Street and North Avenue.
The city repaired and improved the services under East Monument, replacing 500 feet of 6-inch pipe with 12-inch water pipe, relining a couple of hundred feet of sewer and 423 feet of storm drain tunnel. The city wanted to "make sure, since we finished, we didn't have to come back" for a long time, Foxx said.
Chow said the city does not have the money now for all of the repairs for the three systems but is planning repairs over time and will respond to emergencies as they occur. A new city storm water tax is expected to raise about $30 million every year that will be devoted to maintaining the system, Kocher said.
The East Monument collapse was, well, monumental, closing two blocks between Patterson Park and Montford avenues. A culvert leading to the Inner Harbor gave way at about the midpoint of the two blocks, near Bradford Street, and the break kept growing.
A rainstorm expanded the hole that plunged about 40 feet and contributed to the damage of a 6-inch water main. At first, Chow said, officials thought they had a 100-foot repair job, but ultimately it amounted to 423 feet, as the scope of the work went well beyond the three months officials estimated in late July.
It was frustrating and painful for local merchants, who saw their trade plummet into a giant hole in the ground.
"It messed our business up a lot," said Thach Le, owner of Aaliyah Nails salon, guessing that the shop lost about half its customers.
Said Yakine, owner of Kennedy Fried Chicken, closed the business because he had no gas for cooking, but returned Wednesday to have a look and make plans to reopen in the next few weeks. He says he's behind $7,500 in rent.
"It's very hard to bring customers back," he said. "We're going to try."
Copyright © 2013, The Baltimore Sun