Old Town merchants, city officials wary of impacts of sewer expansion project
Friday, May 23rd, 2014
Issue 21, Volume 18.
City officials and Old Town merchants are worried about the potential impacts of the project. But they also concede that growth must stop in the popular business district until its plumbing is fixed.
They are cautiously monitoring the regional water district that is overseeing the work and the contractor it hires to install a 15-inch sewer line through the heart of the compact, constantly-changing economic zone.
"The new sewer (line) must be built, but the city is rightfully concerned," Temecula City Councilman Jeff Comerchero said in a recent interview. Growth is at a standstill, he acknowledged, because the district’s existing 8-inch sewer line is at capacity.
He hopes the Eastern Municipal Water District project, which could begin to unfold in the coming months, is as "least impactful as possible."
For its part, Eastern officials say they are mindful of city and merchant concerns and steps will be taken to minimize the construction impacts. Planning has been under way for years, and a May 1 meeting attracted about 30 merchants and business owners.
"We wanted to make sure we were out front on this," said Roxanne Rountree, an Eastern public affairs officer. "It’s a little community down there and we want to work together."
A separate meeting between Eastern and city officials that focused on the sewer line project was held March 26.
The 3,000-foot line, which will parallel Old Town Front street, is in the final phase of its design. The new line will stretch from First Street to Moreno Road. Work is expected to begin in September, and continue until November 2015.
In order to minimize construction impacts, Eastern will keep the existing 8-inch sewer line in place and it will remain in service well into the future. Eastern also plans to ask its contractor to use a "trenchless" process to install the new line.
That method limits the need for trenching by relying on the use of boring equipment. The work will be done in segments as crews move from one end of Old Town to the other. The trenchless process will result in "significantly less" impacts than conventional methods, according to an Eastern memo.
Comerchero and some merchants are comparing the sewer line work to the last major public project that targeted Old Town Front Street. That 1998 facelift cost $5.5 million, and the city was intimately involved with its contractor during the improvements that included wooden sidewalks, new street lights and decorative arches.
Old Town Temecula anchored a vast agricultural area in the 1880s. It was a stagecoach and railroad hub for cattle ranches, farms and granite quarries that blanketed the region.
But Old Town’s fortunes dipped after the 84,500-acre Vail Ranch was sold for development and Interstate 15 split the fast-growing community. Residential and commercial growth shifted away from Old Town, and the aging buildings there became the home of about 120 antique and collectible shops and other small businesses.
Old Town languished until the city targeted it for a 1998 facelift that came after a developer’s plan to build a Western-theme entertainment venue fizzled there.
That facelift was funded by redevelopment revenues, an income source that was tapped for an array of city projects that included an $11 million community theater and a $3.2 million children’s museum.
From the start, city officials worked to prevent a merchant backlash over the construction impacts of the facelift project. Prior to the start of the project, the City Council agreed to pay the contractor a $200,000 premium to ensure that the work would be done before the upcoming Christmas shopping season.
The city also funded a $65,000 promotional campaign to help market Old Town during the construction project. Visitors were given plastic yellow construction-style hats decorated with stickers that proclaimed: "I helped make Old Town Temecula great!!"
Comerchero and another councilman met weekly with merchants during informal gripe sessions that centered on the improvement work. One meeting attracted about 80 concerned merchants, according to a July 1998 newspaper report.
Yet many of the merchants’ fears failed to materialize, however, as a city report released in February 1999 noted that Old Town sales tax revenues had climbed during the construction period.
City officials have long contended that the community theater, the museums, wooden sidewalks and other public projects have served as magnets to private development. Those private developers, who sometimes also tapped city redevelopment funds, in turn built affordable apartments, office buildings and restaurants, city officials noted.
Waves of construction booms in recent years brought several multi-story buildings to Old Town’s skyline. Numerous aging commercial buildings and deteriorating homes were razed or moved to make way for taller, larger projects in Old Town.
Old Town’s most visible structure â€“ a $93 million Civic Center complex â€“ opened in December 2010 at an intersection that was once destined to anchor a Western-theme concert hall and other attractions. That price tag included purchasing land and constructing a Spanish-style City Hall, a conference room, police satellite office, parking garage, visitors’ center and an outdoor amphitheater.
Other private developments followed and specialty restaurants, clothing and food shops now fill many storefront locations.
Dozens of special events are held annually at the Civic Center and other Old Town locations. In some years, especially during sunny weekends, the Rod Run vintage car show attracts more than 70,000 visitors to Old Town streets.
A new bridge recently opened that replaced the aging Main Street span across Murrieta Creek. The previous two-lane concrete structure was built in 1945. The new 155-foot steel bridge, which cost about $5 million to build, features a turn-of-the-century look. A federal infrastructure grant paid about 95 percent of the bridge’s construction cost.
The same day that the new bridge opened, Mayor Maryann Edwards focused on Old Town during part of her State of the City presentation.
She noted that more than 100,000 square feet of restaurants and other commercial space were added to Old Town during the past year. She went on to describe the area as "a vibrant, popular downtown district with its old west charm."
She praised the recent completion of the 43,000-square-foot Truax Building, a boxy residential and commercial structure that flanks the west side of Interstate 15.
Yet while most observers were content to watch Old Town’s continually reshape itself, city and special district officials tackled the area’s key infrastructure need.
Eastern officials noted in 2010 that city-approved land use changes would soon strain Old Town’s existing sewer line. A new line would be needed to accommodate future growth and ease the stress that large-scale special events add to the existing system.
Design work began in February 2012. Thus far, Eastern has spent about $1.3 million on the design, inspection and land acquisition costs of the project.
Rountree said Eastern engineers estimate that it will cost about $12.6 million to buy and install the new sewer line. Much of that cost will be funded through an assessment district that targets new development that will benefit from the line.
Craig Puma, a past president of the Old Town Temecula Association and the owner of two restaurants, predicted some businesses will be "impacted adversely" by the work.
"It’s going to be tough on business," Puma said in a recent telephone interview.
Puma said The Bank, the Mexican restaurant he owns in a prominent historic building, suffered a drop in sales during the recent yearlong period in which the Main Street Bridge was closed during the replacement process.
Puma said he created a promotional cocktail during the bridge construction that he used to attract customers. The "Piledriver" was sold at a discount price whenever construction equipment pounded bridge footings into the nearby creek bed, he said.
Puma said he fears that sales may also dip during the sewer line project, especially since one of the contractor’s excavation shafts will likely be placed in front of his restaurant. He is now contemplating serving the "Shaftarita" cocktail in recognition of the sewer project’s drilling process.
Puma said some of his concerns were eased when Eastern officials detailed their impact-buffering efforts during the May 1 meeting with Old Town merchants.
"They’ve really gone overboard in protecting the businesses and making it as unobtrusive as possible," he said.
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