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Business group to represent Alton store owners in Miami Beach

Traffic and construction looking north from Sixth Street on Alton Road on Feb. 24.
Traffic and construction looking north from Sixth Street on Alton Road on Feb. 24.

Construction on Alton Road has wreaked a traffic nightmare on South Beach drivers, but business owners along the torn-up corridor say they’ve suffered most of all.

The lengthy construction project — and the impact it has had on businesses’ bottom lines —spurred the creation of a new association to represent store owners and landlords whose livelihoods depend on the street.

The Alton Road Business Association was incorporated last month and has already grown to include about 50 members.

Michael Gorey, 44, who owns two nail salons on Alton, is president of the organization. He said he launched the group with the help of Miami Beach city employees, who connected him with other businesses after trying on his own to get more information about the Alton Road project.

Construction on Alton Road began in April 2013, and southbound traffic has been closed since November.

“It was the first time in history that customers called us and said, ‘We can’t park,’ ” Gorey said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is, in part, installing pumps to relieve flooding in the area — a sore issue in Miami Beach, especially in the southwest.

Gorey said customers have rolled up their pants and walked through flooded parking lots to get to their nail appointments.

“But the construction really was enough to keep them from getting to our front door,” he said.

Businesses have reported sales drops as large as 40 percent. And they’re worried the problem will persist even after construction wraps up, because about 90 parking spaces will be eliminated and FDOT plans on installing medians for the length of the street.

Medians will cut off access to storefronts, owners say. In some cases, drivers would have to travel four blocks and make a U-turn to make it to businesses on the opposite side of the street.

The plan for medians “needs to be removed,” Sam Brejt, a vice president of the business association, recently told Beach commissioners.

The medians were not originally part of FDOT’s plans for the construction project, but a resident group, the Alton Road Reconstruction Coalition, advocated for them as a way to make the area more pedestrian friendly. Tammy Tibbles created the coalition.

“A business’ best friend is a pedestrian-friendly roadway, and a substantial median — a 17-foot-wide median with a tree canopy — will help to facilitate that. Cars don’t buy anything. People buy things,” Tibbles said.

Neither side is happy with the state’s plan, though. Tibbles said the medians that were incorporated into FDOT’s plan limits cross-street connectivity and the medians are much smaller than what the coalition had pushed for. The shade trees that the coalition had hoped to see installed in the medians will likely be replaced with small plants and shrubs.

Galvanized by Gorey and the association, business owners streamed into Miami Beach City Hall during the March commission meeting to advocate for a new Alton Road design. They held up signs that implored: “Don’t block my business.”

“I’m here to protect our livelihoods,” Gorey told the City Commission.

Commissioners did not take action, but are expected to take up the issue at their April meeting.

The city has tried to help Alton merchants by launching a free trolley service that provides access to 300 businesses, according to the city’s estimate. In the first month, the city says there were 16,000 riders.

The city also temporarily waived some rules to allow business owners to use temporary signs to advertise that they’re open during construction.

Most importantly, though, is that the city says it has negotiated with FDOT to reopen Alton Road by the end of December — seven months ahead of schedule.

Gorey said business owners owe the city staff and commission “a big debt of gratitude.”

“It’s just been amazing how quickly they’ve responded. And the other amazing thing is I believe this organization has taken root,” he said.

Gorey said he wants to keep the association alive even after the Alton Road construction issue is settled. He’d like to focus on driver and pedestrian safety and possibly organize a street festival. He hopes area businesses will be incorporated into the city’s upcoming centennial celebration.

Gorey also wants to focus on community issues, such as helping to improve schools and getting involved in beach cleanups.

“I just hope we can start to connect the dots for people who live here, for families and longtime residents. And if we can make it a better place for people to come and visit, that’s great too,” he said.

Follow @Cveiga on Twitter.

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