Charles Street LRT construction has businesses feeling the pinch

Construction on Charles Street in Kitchener has dozens of businesses along the major downtown artery feeling the pinch as customers abandon the neighbourhood after its become a labyrinth of temporary fencing and open pits.

Businesses frustrated at not being able to erect signage

Construction work on Charles Street West between Benton and Water has turned the normally thriving thoroughfare into a dusty labyrinth of open pits, gravel and temporary fencing that local businesses say have scared away many of their customers. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

Businesses along the normally busy Charles Street West in Kitchener's core say they're starting to feel the pinch from LRT construction along the major downtown artery.

Charles Street West is an important artery through the city's core. It's home to the Charles Street Transit Terminal and several cafes, restaurants, stores and other services that depend on the high traffic moving through the area to fuel their businesses. 

The steady influx of people, though, has nearly ground to a halt as construction has ramped up along the corridor between Benton and Water streets in the past few weeks. Crews have been tearing up much of the street in order to move and upgrade sewer and water mains so that track work can begin on the ION light rail transit project next spring. 

It means many people are avoiding the area, which has become a dusty labyrinth of temporary construction fencing, according to downtown Kitchener resident Petra Prekeech. 

Construction has meant some buses have to re-routed away from the Charles Street Terminal, where a steady influx of travelers feeds Ashish Gupta's Transfers Cafe. "Nobody comes in," he says. "Business is down by 40 per cent." (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"I've been trying to avoid Charles completely," she said. "I leave myself a bit of extra time to navigate."

Brian Plumbtree, who lives in St Agatha, was making his way through the construction zone last week to visit Kitchener City Hall. 

"Hard to get around," he yells over the din of a huge machine excavating dirt on Charles. "To come to a store downtown or come here to city hall, this is a mess." 

Many streets that normally cross Charles have become dead ends because of the construction and it has limited access to the Charles Street Transit Terminal, where Ashish Gupta, the owner of Transfers Cafe, relies on the steady influx of commuters and travelers. 

"It's affecting [us] a lot," he says. "The GO bus has gone from here, GO bus customers give me a lot of business and all the bus schedules have gone inside out. Nobody comes in ... about 40 per cent business has gone down." Gupta estimates his business is taking a hit of about $1,000 a day as a result.

It's not just transit that's affected. There have been various restrictions to vehicle traffic between Benton and Water streets since mid- June. 

Greg Polecki, who owns Downtown Auto Centre at the intersection of Charles and Gaukel, is seeing only about three-quarters of the customers he's used to. 

Polecki, who has a staff of seven mechanics, says the lull in business has meant his people aren't always busy, but he'd rather eat the cost than lay any of them off. 

"I send these guys home, they're going to look for other work. Then when I need them again, are they going come back? No," he said. "It's just not fair, so the first thing I look after is my people because they look after me." 

Bylaw won't allow for additional signage

For others, the frustration goes beyond staffing. Some business owners would like to see better signage, directing people through the maze of ditches and gravel that ring Charles Street. 

Grandlinq, the consortium hired to build the Ion LRT, says crews are moving and upgrading sewer and water mains along the route in order to prep the area so light rail trackwork can begin in 2016. (Colin Butler/CBC News)

"The two yellow signs say 'Thank you for visiting the businesses in the downtown,' but don't really do anything to direct traffic," Tyson Reiser, the owner of Cafe Pyrus says, pointing at a pair of signs erected by the Downtown Kitchener Business Improvement area. "That's really what the businesses are having an issue with." 

Reiser says he and many of the local business owners would like to put up their own signs in order to direct more traffic towards their businesses, which are still open despite the construction. But a regional bylaw prevents local business owners from erecting a sign outside their premises. 

Reiser says the region should give businesses a break and make an exception to that rule, given the unprecedented level of construction in the core.

The region doesn't see it that way though. Kim Moser, who is the manager of rapid transit community relations for the Region of Waterloo, says"it's especially critical during construction that the sign bylaw is enforced."

"On a day-to-day basis, the construction changes, so if an individual business, for example, put up a sign and it had an arrow one way and anyone coming across that might stumble into the wrong part of the construction zone. So it's really important that the people doing the construction have the ability to move the signage as they progress." 

Many business owners believe they just need to weather the storm, that there will be long-term gain with the arrival of a mass transit light rail system as long as they can survive the short-term pain of construction. But Reiser, for one, says he didn't expect this summer would be so tough.

"The end goal in sight is that it is going to make a big impact in Kitchener. I fully supported LRT. I think it's something we really need," Reiser said. "But I didn't think I'd have to face the construction so isolated with almost no help from the city, the region or the BIA." 

If all goes according to plan, life should get a bit easier for Reiser in the fall, at which point sewer and water mains on Charles Street are expected to be moved and upgraded.  

But construction will ramp up again next spring – that's when trackwork on the LRT begins. The LRT, which will connect Fairview Park Mall in Kitchener with Conestoga Mall in Waterloo, is expected to be up and running in 2017.


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