An $8 million rebuild of St. James’ Lake Avenue, the town’s biggest road project in more than 40 years, has largely finished, ending months of disruption for area merchants, town officials said this week.
Lake Avenue itself was once again passable, enabling shoppers to reach the boutiques, restaurants and professional offices that line the hamlet’s main thoroughfare without detouring. New sidewalks are installed and two pipes buried about 17 feet underground — one for water, one for waste — mean that no more major work will likely be needed for decades. Disused utility poles that partly blocked some curb ramps for the disabled have been removed.
Still to come, officials said: demolition of the Irish Viking bar, likely before Thanksgiving, to make way for a small park and parking lot; installation of benches and street signs, which will take place over the winter; and new crosswalks and asphalt, scheduled to be laid over a two-week period in the spring. A groundbreaking for the park, which will be funded and named for a civic group, Celebrate St. James, has been scheduled for Wednesday.
"This is progress," said Natalie Weinstein, Celebrate’s president, a designer whose firm is on Lake Avenue. About 17 of 146 business tenant spaces in the area are vacant, according to the town, and Weinstein said she expected that number to drop. "When you see progress, you want to get in on the ground floor, if you’re smart."
Eric Neitzel, a St. James real estate broker, said any analysis of the local market needed to factor in the pandemic as well as the rebuild. "This is probably the best selling market in my 40 years in a career selling houses," he said, partly because of the virus, which has also contributed to an "abundance" of commercial office and retail space.
The real value of the project won’t be realized until the sewer line is hooked up to a treatment plant, Neitzel said, a move that would ease restrictions on wet uses, such as restaurants and apartments. "Until you’re connected, it’s like having a beautiful car but you don’t have the tires." Connection is likely years away; town officials hope to negotiate an agreement if developers build one at the nearby Gyrodyne property, a former helicopter manufacturing site whose owner has proposed uses, including a hotel and assisted living.
One merchant, Melanie Bassi of St. James Cleaners, said the town's work should have been rescheduled to minimize the impact on businesses like hers that are struggling because of the pandemic. Councilman Thomas Lohmann said that preliminary work began two years ago and that the town had ensured that access was always possible even if customers sometimes had to take detours. "When the pandemic hit, we had already started the dry sewer line," he said, adding that "I empathize with every one of those businesses."
Bassi wasn't the only merchant who said business had been disrupted by the work, which began in March. Aparr Verma, executive chef of Cafe SJ7, said construction dust and noise had made outdoor dining a tough sell for a young restaurant; John Imbriano of A&D Silver, which sells coins and collectibles, said he'd watched revenue plummet as wooden planks replaced sidewalks under construction. Both said they were hopeful about coming months, though.
Guy Caligiuri of Patio Pizza, a longtime presence on Lake Avenue, likened the work to a needed investment. "This town hasn’t been updated in 50 years, so this was something that was necessary," he said.
Michael Stahl, a partner in Sweet Soul Bakery, which opened in 2015, said a niche in vegan and gluten free items and a wholesale line had been lifelines as road reconstruction and the pandemic smothered retail on Lake Avenue. "If we didn’t have wholesale, we’d probably be out of business," he said.
Reopening Lake Avenue lifted a "huge burden," he said. He and partner Pat Charity plan to ramp up retail efforts, and he’s recently fielded calls from colleagues in the food business interested in the area, he said. "I do feel optimistic."
Celebrate St. James Park
A groundbreaking for a new park is scheduled in November. Features will include:
Synthetic turf lawn
Benches and boulder seating
Planters, garden, shade pergola
Approximately 25 parking spaces