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Delay in bridge not all bad


James "Buzz" Cusack, co-owner of the Charles Theatre, was worried 2 1/2 years ago when jackhammers started demolishing the Charles Street Bridge just south of his cinema - clamping off the central artery through the city's cultural district.

But the dead end has turned into a blessing for Cusack and neighboring bar owners, with their customers preferring the peaceful cul-de-sac.

A Spanish tapas restaurant next to Cusack's theater capitalized on the absence of traffic by setting up tables for outdoor dining.

So when Cusack learned yesterday that the reopening of the bridge - once planned for July - would be delayed for at least several more months, he only half-joked that he hoped the delays might last forever.

"Business is going very well - it's much more pedestrian-friendly not to have all the cars whizzing by," said Cusack. "We were worried when the bridge closed. But now we are worried that it will open."

Not all business owners are happy about the delays to the project. But for some, there's a silver lining to the news released by the city Department of Transportation yesterday: The $23 million bridge project, which interrupts the flow of one of the city's busiest streets, won't be finished until perhaps May.

Transportation Director Alfred H. Foxx Jr. said that construction crews repeatedly broke drilling rigs trying to bore through an old foundation that turned out to have buried steel beams that engineers did not know about.

As a result, the completion of the fourth and final span of the bridge will take much longer than expected, said Foxx.

About 300 workers, led by Cherry Hill Construction Corp. of Jessup, have poured about 20,000 tons of concrete and raised scores of steel beams building a replacement for the crumbling nearly century-old bridge next to Penn Station.

Work also was delayed on the final section of the bridge because of difficulties in scheduling work over Amtrak rails that carry passengers up and down the East Coast, Amtrak's most important corridor, Foxx said.

"We can only work at night, from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.," Foxx said. "We let Amtrak tell us the schedule, because it's Amtrak's right-of-way, and Amtrak tells us those trains are money to them."

As trains rumbled past the construction site yesterday, laborers sank steel bars that serve as a skeleton for the bridge.

Paul Siebert, project manager for Cherry Hill Construction, said he is optimistic that, despite the problems that crews have encountered digging holes for the foundation, the project won't run into further delays.

For Cusack, who spent $1.6 million expanding the Charles Theatre three years ago, the health of the business is linked to customers being drawn to Charles Street. He has been pleased with the way the bridge project has gone.

Other businesses say the detours around the construction site hurt the city's efforts to encourage new businesses to open along Charles Street.

The architecturally dazzling Mount Vernon neighborhood - rich with museums and restaurants - featured the city's most glamorous shopping strip in the 1920s. But today, Charles Street has many vacant windows.

"It's just one more deterrent that discourages people from driving down Charles Street," said Steve Appel, an owner of Nouveau Contemporary Goods, a furniture store several blocks south of the bridge. "It's dragging us downhill."

Other businesses report no damage from the more than two years of street closure, said David Derewicz, co-chairman of the Historic Charles Street Association.

"The closing of the street has made a safe, quiet nice neighborhood north of the bridge," said Derewicz, manager of the Prime Rib restaurant. "It really hasn't been the threat we thought it would be, and in some ways it has turned out very well."

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