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Manhattan Merchants Learning About ‘Hard Sell’

Times Staff Writer

Sure, Christie Cluff was saying the other day. What right-minded Manhattan Beach merchant wouldn’t want a snazzy new sidewalk and pretty landscaping to grace the front of her store?

But when the construction begins and sales drop to the tune of several thousand dollars a month--as Cluff says has happened at her Highland Avenue card and gift shop--well, that’s another story.

“It’s really scary,” Cluff said this week as her husband, Ron, rang up a sale inside the small shop. “This isn’t a hobby to us. It’s what we do.

“I can’t try extra-hard in August to sell Valentine cards.”

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The Cluffs’ shop is in an area that some merchants call the “war zone” since work began about six weeks ago on a $5.3-million face lift of the city’s downtown.

Three days after New Year’s, construction crews began a full-scale assault on portions of Highland and other areas, moving in heavy equipment and reducing sidewalks and streets to rubble.

50% Business Drop

Although Cluff and other merchants say they expected some inconvenience, they were not prepared for the major disruptions or the drop in business that has been as much as 50% at some stores.

Even city officials say they are a little surprised by the total mess that the downtown area has become. “It’s a disaster area, quite frankly,” said Jim McGovern, a civil engineer with the city’s Public Works Department.

Not that the contractor is perfectly happy, either. Robert Biggs, who is overseeing the job for Moulder Bros. Construction of Glendale, says some business owners expect too much of him. For instance, he said, some have demanded that at least one lane of traffic be allowed on every street at all times. They also have demanded that parking be made available.

“You spend more time pacifying merchants than you do construction,” Biggs said. “If they would just let me build it and get out of here.”

City officials say the project, most of which is being paid for with parking revenues, has been in the planning stages for about five years. Work will be done along Manhattan Beach Boulevard from Ardmore Avenue to the Strand; along Manhattan Avenue from 15th to 8th streets, and along Highland Avenue from 15th to 10th streets.

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The project, known as Streetscape, has two goals: to spruce up the area to enable merchants to better compete with nearby malls, and to perform much-needed maintenance work on sidewalks and utilities. The sewer lines in the area date back to the turn of the century and were in desperate need of replacement, city officials said.

When the project is finished--the construction contract calls for completion by the end of June--the area will have fancy tile sidewalks and crosswalks, new street lights, trees, signs, curbs and gutters. “I think it is marvelous, I think it is wonderful,” longtime local jeweler Donald Deziel said of the project.

Despite the torn-up streets, sidewalks and traffic barricades, several merchants say their business has not declined. Vesna Pevec, a floral designer who owns Flowers By Vesna on Highland Avenue, said her business has not been affected because she does not rely on walk-in customers. And she still gets some despite the obstacles.

“Women have tromped through the sand in their heels” to get here, Pevec said.

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Other merchants say that although business is off, their loyal local clientele, many of whom live within walking distance of downtown, continue to come.

“I have very faithful customers; they still come,” said Pia Cambra, who owns the Ladd Bros. Launderlux on Manhattan Avenue. She estimated that her laundry and dry-cleaning business might be off 20% since the work began.

Closed to Traffic

But some merchants along Highland say they have been seriously hurt by the project, primarily because of the contractor’s decision in early January to close the avenue for the entire five blocks between Manhattan Beach Boulevard and 15th Street. The stretch remained closed to daytime traffic for about three weeks and is still torn up, although traffic can crawl through.

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“It was like going to the hospital and having your lungs, kidneys and heart worked on all at one time,” said Ken Bostrack, manager of the Bank of America branch on Highland. “We even had people call us and say ‘How do we get there?,’ ” Bostrack said.

Although Bostrack said the bank’s business has not suffered during the construction, other merchants say they were not so lucky. Chet Naylor, owner of the Criterion Restaurant, said his business was off as much as 40% when the avenue was closed.

Cluff, the card shop owner, said she and other merchants did an informal survey recently of 11 business owners on Highland and found that sales were down by an average of 49% since construction began.

William Bennett, a senior partner with ASL Consulting Engineers, the civil engineering company supervising the project for the city, said the Highland street closure was necessary because of the complexity of installing the new sewer lines and storm drains.

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Because the utilities work won’t be nearly as extensive on the other streets in the project, it will not be necessary to close any more long stretches of roadway, he said. All other work will be done on a block-by-block basis, he said.

No Warning to Merchants

Bennett said he is sympathetic to the merchants’ plight. On one occasion during the first week of construction, he said, merchants were not given the proper 24 hours’ warning before major work was started outside their stores. The construction contract calls for such notice.

Bill Berg, hired by ASL to inspect the construction and work with the merchants, said he has noticed a decrease in the number of pedestrians in the downtown area since work began.

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“I try to feel for (the merchants) and I tell them what is happening and they don’t accept it,” he said. “I don’t blame them, but I can’t sit down and cry with them.”

Both Bennett and Berg, as well as city officials, say efforts are being made to keep the merchants informed about the project. Newsletters have been published, as have construction schedules.

And some local business owners, including Cluff and David Arias, a developer who is head of the Downtown Manhattan Beach Business and Professional Assn., say they believe city officials are attempting to make the whole ordeal easier on them. For one thing, the work was scheduled to fall between the Christmas shopping period and the summer tourist season.

“In a few months, it’ll be over and everybody will be happy,” City Manager David Thompson said. “But we have to survive until then.”

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Meanwhile, Manhattan Beach resident Chris Davidson, who was dropping off her laundry at Ladd Bros. one afternoon last week, said that as far as she is concerned, there is one advantage to having the downtown area torn up.

“It keeps the tourists out.”


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