Dump trucks growled along the 900 block of Alton Road in South Beach this week as workers tore up asphalt and maneuvered chunks of concrete drainage pipes into the earth.
But around the corner, it was quieter than usual at the serene Massage by Design day spa.
“People who used to be regulars don’t even want to bother with West Avenue and Alton now,” said Melissa Lawhorn, who owns Massage by Design at 959 West Ave. “Traffic is a mess. Sometimes the construction cuts off parking spaces. Then there’s the flooding. It’s been horrible for my business.”
Lawhorn said her sales are down about 50 percent since the Alton Road construction project began a year ago; the road’s southbound lanes have been closed since November, with traffic detoured to West Avenue. While the spa usually brings in $2,000 on a Saturday, Lawhorn said Massage by Design’s total take from Saturday through Tuesday was about $900.
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“I tried to do a Groupon, but even that didn’t sell,” Lawhorn said, referring to the daily deal website. “I feel like I’m almost out of options.”
For several months, business owners, drivers and pedestrians have experienced the squeeze of construction from just about every corner of South Beach.
Slowdowns and backups mount as the MacArthur Causeway loses a lane in each direction near the Biscayne Boulevard exit on weekdays as part of the ongoing PortMiami Tunnel project. A full westbound closure is set for the predawn hours Thursday; motorists unfortunate enough to make it to Jungle Island will be detoured back east on the causeway and north on Alton to I-195.
Recently discovered areas of structural deterioration prompted county officials to suspend Miami-Dade Transit bus routes across the Venetian Causeway. A western bridge will require up to nine months of repairs and a month-long closure.
The Julia Tuttle Causeway (I-195), the other major artery in and out of South Beach, is due for temporary lane closures soon.
Cars crawl along Collins Avenue, hugging orange traffic cones and navigating intermittent lane closures. Crews are working to rebuild sidewalks and improve drainage on the stretch of Collins between Fifth Street and Lincoln Road.
But a $32 million Florida Department of Transportation project to relieve persistent flooding along busy Alton Road has caused the most grumbles from business owners and nearby residents. Southbound lanes are closed between Eighth and 17th streets, and patches of parking spaces have been taken off the grid.
“I’m hearing it’s devastating, from businesses large and small,” said Jerry Libbin, president of the Miami Beach Chamber of Commerce and a former city commissioner. “I can absolutely assure you that people have gone out of business.”
South Beach landmark Cuban restaurant David’s Cafe announced Tuesday that it will close at 1058 Collins Ave. on Sunday after 37 years in business.
Restaurant owner Adrian Gonzalez, who closed a second David’s location off Lincoln Road in 2012, did not cite a specific reason for this week’s closure. Earlier this month, he took out his frustrations with the Collins Avenue construction project on his restaurant’s Facebook page. He posted photos showing a torn-up sidewalk outside his cafe’s front door, dotted by construction cones and yellow caution tape.
“I find the necessity to inform our customers that we are open 24-7 even if we may look closed thanks to the Florida Department of Transportation that seems to have no consideration for local residents and small local businesses in Miami Beach,” Gonzalez wrote on his restaurant’s page on April 2. “We, the David’s Cafe family, always welcome change and more importantly progress, but not at the expense of my family business.”
Street construction also is affecting the bottom line at Haven Lounge and its neighboring sibling taco shop, Huahua’s, both located just west of Alton on Lincoln Road.
“Suddenly losing our sidewalk seating due to construction presented some challenges,” said Niloy Thakkar, co-owner of the restaurants. “Our outside patio dining has been affected due to noise levels, debris, and occasional smoke and dust. In the end, you do your best to power through and keep customers happy.”
State transportation and Miami Beach officials have worked to make the project less painful to city residents, visitors and businesses — and to keep shop owners up to date about progress.
“In addition to sending weekly electronic notifications, we conduct door-to-door distributions with project information, one-on-one field meetings to discuss upcoming work, as well as communicate via phone and email on a regular basis,” Miguel Amaya, a spokesman for the state construction projects, wrote in an email.
In February, a taxpayer-funded free trolley service rolled out, looping around the affected parts of Alton Road and West Avenue in an effort to connect people with the estimated 300 businesses along the route. More than 16,000 people rode the trolley in its first month of service.
And the city and FDOT announced a plan to reopen Alton Road by the end of this year — seven months ahead of the original schedule.
“Mayor [Philip] Levine and City Manager [Jimmy] Morales have met with state officials to expedite the Alton Road construction, and a resolution was passed to approve all options, including extending the hours of construction activities, to expedite the project,” city spokeswoman Nannette Rodriguez said.
To many on the beach, completion of the Alton Road and other projects can’t come soon enough. Businesses on Alton and Collins say the construction is driving away customers, while residents along West Avenue object to the influx of speedy cars being detoured past their homes
About 50 business owners banded together to form the Alton Road Business Association to represent the interests of their members at commission meetings and to communicate updates about construction along the corridor.
The chamber of commerce and city leaders worked together to allow businesses to hang temporary signs to make their shops more visible to potential customers, and to allow parking at some meters that were closed because of construction.
Some businesses have deployed humor in their signage: Lime, at 1439 Alton Rd., has renamed its takeout option from curbside to barricade-side service during the construction.
“While we have always had a sense of humor in our messaging for Lime and the other restaurants, the situation is really unbelievable,” said John Kunkel, CEO of 50 Eggs Inc., which also operates Beach restaurants Khong River House and Yardbird. “I can’t imagine opening my first restaurant on Alton 11 years ago and having to deal with the current situation.”
Besides business owners, resident-based groups like the Alton Road Reconstruction Coalition and the West Avenue Corridor Neighborhood Association have spoken out about issues they have with FDOT’s plans and concerns that the Alton Road detour is endangering pedestrians and cyclists.
Chamber president Libbin said he thinks the construction woes should encourage the city to think about how to provide more public and mass transportation options. The mayors of Miami, Miami Beach and Miami-Dade County revived talks this month of building a mass transit system across Biscayne Bay.
“People will have to modify their behavior,” Libbin said. “Successful cities have people moving in public transportation.”
At Massage by Design, Lawhorn said she is hoping her business can hold on to see the end of the Alton Road project.
“Once it gets done, I know it’s going to be really pretty and improve the quality of life around here,” Lawhorn said. “Until then, I guess we just have to be patient and keep our fingers crossed.”