Downtown businesses still uneasy about 'big dig' rejig on Water Street

They appreciate the less invasive plans, but some business owners are still worried the work will drive away customers.

One owner says communication will be key

City officials say century-old Water Street water and sewer infrastructure needs to be replaced. (CBC)

The City of St. John's announced a 'big dig' re-jig aimed at being easier on businesses, but some owners still aren't totally digging it.

"I think it's going to be a struggle and we're a little worried about how it will affect us for the future," said Jill Evely, manager of Starbucks on Water Street.

The original plan — the "big dig" —  was to tear up Water Street and replace the century-old sewer and water pipes beneath the road.

Jill Evely, manager of Starbucks on Water Street, says they're a little worried the dig up will affect foot traffic into their shop. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

But outcry from businesses along the busy downtown street sent city officials back to the drawing board.

Now, the so-called Water Street Infrastructure Project will use trenchless technology, allowing traffic to flow on one side of the street at all times throughout the five-year, four-phase plan.

"We're going to be doing a lot less excavation," said Dave Lane, councillor at large.

The city is also working with an archeologist in case they find anything that needs special handling — after all, St. John's is believed to the oldest city in North America, said Lane— and they'll be making some of the intersections more accessible with better ramps up to curbs and streetlights that emit sounds for the visually impaired.

"We’re trying to get ahead of any water main breaks or any sewage problems that would arise and be much more costly," said Dave Lane, councillor at large. (Gary Quigley/CBC)

The work will begin in the spring of 2018, starting at Bishop's Cove and heading west down Water Street.

The first phase of the project is along the west end of the downtown core, said Lane, because there aren't quite as many businesses along that stretch. That'll give the city a chance to try out the new approach, figure out what works and what doesn't, and improve the plan for the busier parts of the street.

Communication is key

Kelly Mansell, owner of Rocket Bakery, said she appreciates that they're trying to make the best of a bad situation.

"City council has listened to us about our concerns and now this new way of dealing with the situation seems to be a lot less disruptive," she said.

"Everyone knows it's something that has to be done for the good of the downtown core."

Kelly Mansell, one of the owners of Rocket Bakery, said the city promised to communicate and businesses will hold them to that. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

She's a little concerned about a decrease in foot traffic, but she's optimistic that the new city council will keep listening. She said the city promised to keep communicating with businesses.

"And we're going to hold them to it," she said. "I think that communication piece is key."

What could go wrong?

"The infrastructure is not the only thing that's old, a lot of these buildings are as well," said Grant Fowler, manager of Evoo in the Courtyard and the Gypsy Tea Room.

He's worried about all the other things that could break, leak or fall apart while they do the work.

When they first drilled test holes in the street, Fowler said his office basement filled with half a foot of water.

Grant Fowler says his office basement flooded when workers did test drills. (Mark Quinn/CBC)

"As they're doing work, they're going to have to be repairing stuff as they go along," he said.

Evely said the Water Street project is something they've thought about and discussed at Starbucks ever since the first big dig plans were announced.

She's worried that even with traffic passing on one side of the street, the reduced flow will mean fewer customers.

"We get a lot of drop-in customers," she said. "We have been struggling with the idea."

Water Street intersections could be more accessible, said Dave Lane. (Gary Quigley/CBC)