A delayed major infrastructure project in Healdsburg at the center of frustration among neighboring businesses that’s already a year overdue now hopes to hit a late summer finish.
Work began on the multimillion-dollar roundabout one block from Healdsburg Plaza in June 2016, but ran into multiple setbacks during construction. Nearby merchants have grown increasingly impatient and believe the project originally billed as a drastic improvement to traffic flow at the city’s southern gateway has instead stymied business.
Larry Zimmer, the city’s new public works director, acknowledges mistakes were made on project as it approaches two years of heavy-duty construction equipment, orange cones and detour signs.
“When a project is as late as it is, there is blame to be had,” said Zimmer, who assumed the role the first week of January. “I’m not in a position to fairly judge who’s more, who’s less, but just prior experience tells me that, yes, there were obviously things that were done that shouldn’t have been done, and things that weren’t done that should have been done. You don’t get into a situation like this without problems.”
The city can fine contractor Bay Cities Paving & Grading, of Concord, $1,000 per day beyond the project’s deadline, which will be negotiated based on what stoppages are defined as avoidable versus those unforeseen. That process will begin once the roundabout is completed.
Bay Cities did not respond to multiple requests seeking comment.
In addition to addressing downtown traffic flow, the Healdsburg City Council unanimously approved the $10.3 million roundabout project in April 2016 to install railroad ties, tracks and signal controls for a future SMART train stop. The public works project was initially slated to be done by September 2017 but experienced myriad issues when construction workers damaged buried water, gas and sewer lines.
The postponement has yet to eat through the project’s $1 million construction contingency, city officials said. It did force the city council to approve another $1.4 million on a separate contract with Santa Rosa-based engineering firm GHD for project management and design support funds, though, bringing that cost to more than $2.7 million.
The meter, meanwhile, continues to run for a couple dozen restaurants and retailers who say the impacts from ongoing construction and the closure of East Mill Street are hindering the walk-in business they rely on. They estimate drops in their daily foot traffic by as much as 25 percent, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Healdsburg’s prior public works director, Brent Salmi, who retired late last year, invited local merchants that can show documented losses tied to delays of the roundabout project to file financial claims with the city, as permitted by Healdsburg’s municipal code. At least two of them — Lucia Azevedo Fincher of Café Lucia and Richard Peacock of Spoke Folk Cyclery — did that in January and await the city’s required response within 45 days.
“Filing the claim was kind of a last resort,” said Fincher, whose request is for more than $153,000 and doesn’t include the period of post-fire recovery. “It was the only relief that we were offered. There really wasn’t a mitigation plan in place for this project.”
Peacock’s claim is for roughly $25,000, which is for the start of Mill Street’s closure due to the unexpected underground utility fixes but not potential income after October’s wildfires. The city worked with the contractor to temporarily repave and reopen the road where his bicycle shop is located during the month of December for the holiday rush.
The city also said it produced additional signage to emphasize that businesses remain open during construction. It’s held biweekly meetings to hear their concerns as well as worked on other online promotional materials to highlight businesses with local ownership.
“We understand people are not happy and we’re mindful,” said Rhea Borja, a city spokeswoman. “It’s not like we don’t care.”
Without the need for more underground work once the railroad infrastructure is placed through March, only the sidewalks, paving and landscaping will be left to complete in the coming months.
“Being pragmatic, here’s the situation: It’s a s--t deal for everybody,” said Peacock. But “everyone is in this together, and my point is let’s all get together and thrash through problems. Five years from now, everyone will forget how screwed up it was.”