Businesses were open, but many stayed away
Sometime during the final weekend of August, Ari Bejar made a decision that would reverberate throughout the downtown La Mesa Village. He carefully hand-lettered his final message in chalk on a menu board, and come Monday morning, September 1, this is what the regulars saw propped up just behind the locked doors inside his Cosmos Coffee Café:
La Mesa Boulevard
“It’s been a pleasure to serve the community of La Mesa for the last six years. Cosmos is closed. Please check our website for updates.”
As of this writing, Cosmos’ website is down, and Bejar did not return requests for an interview. Maxwell’s House of Books lies directly across La Mesa Boulevard from the once-thriving coffee shop. Owner Craig Maxwell seems to have his finger on the pulse of the business community here. He thinks Bejar shuttered Cosmos due to lost revenue from a year of construction that rebuilt the village’s sidewalks but interrupted the flow of customers to the area. Maxwell says Cosmos is not alone in feeling the pinch.
“It’s been the coup de grâce for Sanfilippo’s too.”
“The construction came at a really awful time for us,” says Dora Sanfilippo-Calcutt.
Dora Sanfilippo-Calcutt manages the restaurant her mother owns. Yes, she says, the sidewalk construction was the last straw for them, too. “The construction came at a really awful time for us,” she explains, “at the end of a really bad financial period for the restaurant.” She confirms that the building is in escrow as of this writing. A note taped to the front door says the Italian diner will close sometime in October or November, after 40 years in La Mesa Village.
In 2014, La Mesa city planners undertook to demolish and replace every square inch of existing sidewalk in downtown La Mesa from Acacia Street to 4th Street (and for a short distance along key side streets). Plans called for new landscaping, public seating, outdoor patios, street lights, more parking, and new underground sewer lines. Work was scheduled on opposite sides of the street and traffic was detoured. Temporary plywood bridges to shopkeepers’ doors were installed, and limited free parking was made available, but it wasn’t enough to keep all of the village’s cash registers ringing.
“Those of us who have survived,” says Maxwell, “have either provided a product that people are willing to jump over hurdles for, like great food or alcohol, or those of us who do online business.” Maxwell says nearly half of his book sales now come via the internet. “Without that, I’d have been down 50 to 70 percent due to the construction. If you’re relying on walk-ins, well, that’s a slow-motion death sentence.”
Johnny B’s corner restaurant is one village destination people were apparently willing to jump construction hurdles for, because they actually got bigger during the mess by expanding into an adjoining retail shop that closed.
“We haven’t seen a loss in business, not really,” says JoNell Mitchell, who manages Johnny B’s. “I don’t feel it’s been as damaging as a lot of the other businesses may feel. We’re looking at the future,” she says. “Now, we’ve got beautiful new sidewalks, benches, and new trees are on the way.”
“With all the construction going on, there’s no foot traffic,” says Rick Bucklew of Don Keating Used Cars.
But next door at Don Keating, the used-car dealership, owner Rick Bucklew tells a different story. “Sales here are way down.” Bucklew, 66, has owned the dealership for 18 years. “It’s been really tough. I’ve got some back-up savings, but it’s not what I had.” The dealership started in 1967 in the shell of an old Richfield gas station. Little has changed since then. Bucklew sits behind a cramped desk inside a small office that opens onto a pair of service bays where cars are up on the lifts. He says the repair business is what’s kept him in business through the slump. “With all the construction going on, there’s no foot traffic,” he explains. Bucklew notes that Shannon O’Dunn, who closed her fine art gallery in July after six years in operation, is likewise a casualty of the construction.
“The first problem,” he says, “was when that truck went through her front window.”
O’Dunn amends Bucklew’s timeline to include the death of her husband. A runaway truck did indeed plow through her store, forcing her to replace both front windows and all of the flooring. “I lost a month of business then,” she says, “and then a month later, along comes the construction.” But O’Dunn is careful not to paint the La Mesa city custodians in a bad light. Blame, if any, falls more on the contractors and subcontractors, who she says didn’t understand the needs of the retail community.
“They used plastic K-rails to route traffic and divide the street. Most people aren’t comfortable walking down the middle of the street with cars whizzing by, or having to walk on plywood boards to get into stores. Then, on the weekends, the construction crew would park their backhoe in front of my windows.” She complained, but to no avail. “The bigger truth is that nobody knew how it would turn out until they were in the middle of it.”
The loss of the main drag likewise excluded popular outdoor gatherings. For the past two summers, for example, neither the antiques vendors’ street fair nor the Thursday-night hot rodder’s car show could stage their events, though the 2015 Oktoberfest was held. Sherri Puck notes that such free-to-the-public happenings may not have generated much in the way of sales, “but they drew people. It kept us on the map,” she says, glancing around her cheerfully merchandised but otherwise empty shop, Handful of Wildflowers.
Puck and her pointer, a hospitable old hound named Wolfgang, sit behind the counter at the home accessory/gift shop she opened nine years ago. “The last three months have been the worst,” she says of her store’s sales. She pauses, looks as if about to cry. “It sucks.” She’s not sure if she wants to tell me any more about how rough it’s been during the construction, but then she does anyway. “I take hikes to relieve the stress.”
She says she’s committed to staying through the holidays. “Then, we’ll see what 2016 brings.”
The village master plan similarly spelled doom for what some have described as a La Mesa landmark — a ficus tree, better than two stories tall, that shaded Cosmos’ outside patio and a good part of the surrounding sidewalk and second-story businesses. Work crews sawed the tree down to a stump last year, in spite of the fact that construction was not scheduled for that side of the street until August 2015.
“I immediately noticed a difference in our turnout on Fridays after they cut it down,” musician Sam Johnson told the Reader in September. For eight years, Johnson’s jazz trio performed on Friday afternoon at Cosmos. “That tree was the essence of Cosmos. People sat out there every day under it, and they bought coffee.”
All of the existing trees along La Mesa Boulevard, including sidewalk planters of flowers and succulents, were jettisoned when construction began. In July, new trees were approved by the La Mesa City Council. Yet to be planted, they include a variety of cork and live oaks and evergreen ash and elms to be planted along La Mesa Boulevard, with crape Myrtle and African tulip trees destined for the sidewalk-level planters along the side streets.
“I’m ecstatic.” In his office, City of La Mesa director of public works Gregory Humora explains why: construction, he says, is ahead of schedule. “We’ve done what we said we’d do, when we said we’d do it.” The winning bid, as posted on the City of La Mesa’s website, was $7,457,758.00. In May 2014, the contract was awarded to Dick Miller, Inc. “It came in a little under $6 million,” Humora says, “for the actual construction part.”
In response to criticism from some village business owners that no emergency fund was set aside to help businesses weather the interruption, Humora says, “We’ve given free parking. No, I don’t have a total for how much so far, but it’s been in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
He says the City of La Mesa first held two public hearings. “And after that, we held 40 individual meetings with business owners, going over with them what we were going to do.”
Theresa Favro, standing out in front of her store Amethyst Moon, says her business was cut in half during the construction.
“Customers, and even my vendors are avoiding the area. And the landlord’s no help.” She laughs. “No, I’m fine. I was in a good financial position when I moved here.” Amethyst Moon is your purple-y headquarters for tarot-card readings, astrology, crystals, and the like. “When I first moved here from El Cajon, we were doing gangbusters. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.” Not anymore, Favro says.
Kristy Allen takes a break from cutting hair at her Boulevard Barber and Shave.
“There are nine hair salons from Date Street to 2nd Street,” she says, putting a little weight on the word nine. “But I’m the only barber shop.” She says her business is getting better every month. “The downside? It’s been noisy and dusty. But the construction guys are polite. They made it accessible for the customers.” Later, parked out in front on a new public bench with her yellow Labrador retriever close by, she will say this: “For the most part, I just have to listen to people, and they just seem to want to be angry about the change.”
Indeed, some of them are. Across the street at the San Pasqual Winery tasting room, a new arrival at the counter grumbles. “Getting in here is something,” she says.
“But it’s not as bad as last week,” says winery manager Brenda Nason while decanting a chardonnay the color of honey.
“We’re a destination place,” Nason says in answer to my question about customers having to climb over a wood plank to get to the front door. “We’ve been here for five and a half years. Business? It’s equal to last year. We haven’t lost any, so that’s a win. But, it hasn’t been as bad for us as it’s been for other shops,” Nason admits. “We have wine-club shipments, and customers have to come here to pick it up,” she smiles. “To be honest, we have more trouble from this heat.”
Heat or not, “It took longer than it should have, the construction.” Trattoria Tiramisu owner David Chiodo lost his popular outside seating a year ago to the new sidewalks, and if he wants to get it back he’ll have to double his liability insurance to $2 million. “I think that’s a little shady.” Chiodo says the cost of the increase amounts to around $700 per year but admits that his restaurant’s business has been slow during construction and he doesn’t want to shoulder another cost. “At this point,” he admits, “I’m still trying to figure it out. I don’t know if I wanna go on.”
“It’s a bitch,” says Craig Maxwell in a blanket summation about doing business during the village renovation. As for the future, when all of the work has been completed — streets paved, lights lit, and trees planted — does he think commerce will return to previous levels or better? No. He does not. “Customers got out of the habit of coming here. Or when they did, they had a bad experience. They found new spots.”