Pipes roil Hampden merchants

Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association and co-owner of Atomic Books, stands outside the store Friday, Jan. 4 and shows bypass pipes partially covered by snow along Falls Road. (Staff photo by Larry Perl / January 3, 2014)

Hampden merchants and a Baltimore City councilwoman are becoming increasingly angry as they wait for the Department of Public Works to finish water and sewer line repair projects that have clogged the commercial 3600 block of Falls Road and nearby streets with temporary lines since last summer.

The city removed the temporary lines for the holidays, including for the scheduled Hampden Mayor's Christmas Parade that was ultimately canceled due to snow, but the lines were re-installed last week along Falls Road at West 36th Street (The Avenue) last week.

"We need a date for when this project will be completed," Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association," said in an email Jan. 2 to Public Works officials. "The pipes were previously here from August to the beginning of December, and nearly every business I spoke to suffered losses over that time frame."

Ray said one business on Falls Road, Novelty Haus, is moving because of the drop-off in business when the temporary lines were first installed..

"The longer these pipes stay here, the longer it hurts the already struggling small businesses along Falls Road," the email states. "Every day these obstructions remain, it costs us money. So please let me know when we can expect them to be removed once and for all, so that I can let the other affected businesses know before more of them decide to move away or close up. I very much hope this is being made a top priority for Baltimore City. We can not afford to go another four months with these pipes here."

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke weighed in with her own email to Public Works officials Jan. 3.

"The water line obstructions on Falls Road are related to work on Buena Vista (Avenue), blocks away from this business area," Clarke wrote. "We need to finish-up and get out of Falls Road, please, before more businesses are forced out of business by these water hose obstructions. Please give us a reliable exit timeline."

The city is upgrading its aging infrastructure as part of a federal consent decree with the Department of Justice, but merchants have assumed that the work in Hampden was of an emergency nature since it started in August. Public Works officials said then that low water pressure in the area of Buena Vista and West 41st Street prompted the project.

Ray asked the city in November to treat the project as an emergency and complete the work as quickly as possible.

But Chow, in an email responding to Ray and Clarke's latest emails, said, "Clearly, this is a water main replacement rather than an emergency repair, thus requiring longer duration and (a) larger foot print. Unfortunately, this is the reality as we proceed with our infrastructure upgrade ..."

Chow asked his staff to provide "complete information," including a schedule for the project, calling it "crucial so citizens/businesses can plan ahead and be informed."

"A realistic schedule is now been worked on," responded Samuel Atolaiye, division chief for Construction Management in Public Works' Bureau of Water & Wastewater.

In November, Joe Hooper, a Public Works project manager, told the merchants' group that the city was making progress on three different water and sewer repair projects in Hampden, and hoped to finish the one that affected merchants on The Avenue and Falls Road in two to three weeks.

"We just have a lot of work going on in a small area," Hooper said at the time.

Ray, owner of Atomic Books on Falls Road, stood in the street Nov. 5 and pointed to the pipes partially covered in snow.

"At least this time they got them up off the gutters," he said.

He said he is tired of various road work that has roiled Hampden in general.

Until the temporary lines were removed for the holidays, "you couldn't drive anywhere in Hampden without (encountering) some sort of road obstacle, some sort of construction in the middle of a roadway," Ray said.

The temporary lines hook bypass pipes to fire hydrants and connecting businesses and residences to the hydrants for temporary water supply on Falls, Buena Vista and Union Avenue, as the city 4-inch, 6-inch and 10-inch mains, impacting merchants and taking away on-street parking.