Construction could wash out Gayborhood businesses

A proposed Philadelphia Water Department construction project could shut down portions of a main Gayborhood thoroughfare, leaving area business owners concerned about the future of their shops.

The Water Department has targeted an area of Pine Street, between Broad and Seventh streets, as the location for a Storm Relief Project.

If the project proceeds, the Water Department would close off one- to two-block segments of Pine Street to vehicular traffic for between two-three months each as workers dig down approximately 16 feet to install a new sewer system. Wooden planks will be laid across the sidewalk for pedestrians to access homes and businesses and many of the street’s trees may need to be removed.

The Water Department estimated the entire project should last about two years, as long as everything goes according to plan.

The project is meant to stem sewage backup that had been recurring in some of the city’s river wards as a result of heavy rains. Between 2004-06, several large rainstorms, which accumulated at least 2.5-3 inches of rainwater an hour, resulted in sewage pipes backing up into basements of properties in Northern Liberties, Washington Square West and parts of South Philadelphia.

Joanne Dahme, PWD Watersheds project manager, explained that when the city experiences intense rain, the aging and inadequate sewers often can’t handle the added water and empty into the basements of area properties instead of draining into tanks and rivers.

“When the sewers fill up and reach capacity from the rainwater, the only way for them to be relieved is by backing up through a property’s laterals, coming up through floor drains or utility sinks at the basement level,” Dahme said. “After 2005, we had a few storms and thought that this could be a fluke as it hadn’t happened in decades, but then it happened again. We recognized that this could be the result of climate change but we are seeing more intense rainstorms, and in order to stop the sewage backup, we have to provide additional conveyance capacity.”

Although Dahme noted the city hasn’t seen widespread backups as the result of intense rain since 2006, the project would guard against future flooding.

“We’ve been lucky that we’ve had two summers where this has not happened, but we don’t want to just say, ‘It’s all over with,’ and then have something happen,” she said.

Dahme said the Water Department is installing backwater valves to protect against sewage backups in basements for the time being, but that the expansion of the sewer system would provide a more permanent solution to the problem.

Although most of the backups did not occur on Pine Street but on smaller surrounding streets, Dahme said the installation of the new system needs to occur on a larger roadway that can accommodate the equipment.

Despite reliving headaches for local residents who’ve struggled with flooded basements, the project has created other headaches for area businesses.

Ed Hermance, owner of Giovanni’s Room, 12th and Pine streets, said the project could disrupt the building’s infrastructure.

“We have a little room in our building that’s underneath the sidewalk, and my guess is the Water Department knows nothing about this room,” Hermance said. “If they’re digging down 16 feet, my building could collapse into that pit. It’s kind of scary.”

Other business owners said the project could also cause a more figurative collapse of their stores.

“This will pretty much destroy [business],” said Glenn Lash, manager of toy store Happily Ever After, 1010 Pine St. “With the current [economic] situation, if you walk down Pine Street, there’s not too much business anyway and about a quarter of businesses are already gone. This is a nice little neighborhood community so we do rely on mothers with strollers walking by and the tourist trade is very important too. Those double-decker buses aren’t going to be able to get down the street, so they’re not going to know we’re here.”

Dahme said the city does not have the funds to compensate business owners for any lost revenue during the project, which will cost about $15 million.

“The city does not have the means to pay for the pain and suffering businesses might face from this project, but we’re going to work to the best of our ability to make sure their services are not affected,” she said.

Hermance said the cut in vehicular and foot traffic could spell financial crisis for Giovanni’s Room and other Pine Street shops.

“All these little mom-and-pop stores — because that’s really who we are, we’re all small businesses — we just cannot be closed for months,” Hermance said.

About 25 Pine Street business owners added their names to a petition sent to Mayor Nutter on Feb. 2, asking him to intervene and stop the project.

“Nobody wants a project like this on their block. People are saying, ‘I’m not having this problem. Why do we have to go through this?’” Dahme said. “It’s a hard story to tell but everything is interconnected through the underground pipes. The neighbors are the ones having the problem and we have to look for a holistic solution.”

The construction was initially projected from Broad Street all the way down to the Delaware River on Pine. Dahme said that after hearing the residents’ and business owners’ concerns during several neighborhood meetings, however, PWD decided to shorten the route to extend only to Seventh, a segment of which — between Pine and Lombard streets — will also be closed for a time.

Dahme said that following an October meeting with concerned Pine Street residents, PWD has continued to look into other possible locations for the construction project. She said the agency is reviewing computer models to analyze the feasibility of installing the new system either on Lombard Street or further into South Philadelphia.

Dahme said PWD should make its final decision on whether it will proceed with the project on Pine Street within a month or two.

John Arneth, owner of Adornamenti, 1106 Pine St., who also operates Show of Hands at 1006 Pine with business partner Paul Harris and lives in the 800 block, called the project a “total disaster.”

“We’re not chain stores; we have nobody to back us up. If Adornamenti had to close for even, say, two months, I’m out of business. When you’ve got only a one- or two-person operation and you don’t get foot traffic, you’ve got a problem.”

Arneth noted that area businesses are already grappling with the city’s decision to raise parking-meter rates to $2 an hour and that the construction project could further compel people to do their shopping elsewhere.

“We’re trying to get people in here and we don’t want to give them another excuse for staying out.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].