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Amid construction, Hamilton hums

By: Tiffany Esshaki | Birmingham - Bloomfield Eagle | Published May 9, 2016

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BIRMINGHAM — When the work is done, Hamilton Avenue will have a fresh set of sidewalks and streetlights, not to mention a newly paved road with updated water and sewer systems underneath.

But it can be hard for some to look that far ahead, past the dirt, barricades and excavators blocking the street right now. The city is hoping to change that.


Before the whir of machines
The project, which was unanimously awarded to FDM Contracting of Shelby Township on Jan. 25, is costing the city more than $1.46 million. But it’s hardly an unforeseen expense. According to City Commissioner Mark Nickita, it’s been a city priority for years to keep up infrastructure before it ages enough to cause major headaches. Water and sewer lines have been replaced around Birmingham over several years now, and now it’s downtown’s turn — where lines are more than 50 years old.

“When we talk about bridges and streets and sewers, we plan years in advance,” Nickita explained. “We have plans five or six years out of what we’re going to be doing. We have a whole set of infrastructure projects that we’ve been allotting for years.”

That much notice, he said, makes it possible to give businesses in the construction zone plenty of time to prepare, Nickita said. Perhaps that’s why there haven’t been many complaints from retailers so far — at least that he’s heard.

“What we did and have done, especially when (a project) is impacting a lot of businesses, is we forewarn the area well in advance to give everybody the opportunity to prepare for the challenge that will be coming — let them know our goals to start, goals to finish and make sure the contractor is adhering to the schedule,” he said.

That constant communication started Feb. 16, when Commonwealth Café, on Hamilton, hosted business owners and residents for a discussion on the project before it was set to begin roughly a month later.

John Heiney, executive director of the Birmingham Shopping District, was there along with Joe Bauman, president of the Birmingham Bloomfield Chamber of Commerce. Since then, Heiney said, both groups have worked to help businesses in the area fare as best they can during the roadwork.

“It was standing room only that night at Commonwealth,” Heiney said. “And we’ve been sending out updates (via email) weekly, sometimes more than once a week, on the progress.”


Taking it to the streets
And it doesn’t stop there. On Thursday, May 12, the BSD and the chamber will partner to host Hamilton Hums, a public event and walking tour of the businesses on Hamilton complete with prizes, goodie bags, refreshments and more. The kickoff for Hamilton Hums will be at 3 p.m. at Lucido Fine Jewelry, on the corner of Hamilton and Old Woodward. Things will wrap up later 5-7 p.m. at Ironwood Grill, inside Emagine Palladium.

“We are partnering with the Birmingham Shopping District for our May 12 Hamilton Hums event to showcase those businesses directly impacted by the road closure and to let everyone know they still are open for business and accessible,” Bauman said in an email. “We held a similar event when Pierce and Merrill streets were under construction, and the effected businesses were very grateful for the assistance.”

Heiney added that from 10 a.m. to noon June 4, the BSD is planning a construction “family day,” similar to a Department of Public Works open house. Families can head over to Hamilton, where all the construction equipment will be shut down for the morning and kids can get the chance see the machines and worksite up close.

“Children’s Hospital of Michigan will be there, because they have their own Kids Construction Club going on,” Heiney explained. “We’ll have entertainment, and kids can decorate the barricades along the sidewalk with chalk.”

The BSD has already done a little decorating of its own in the area, with Christmas lights strung above the barricades that line the sidewalks, and brightly colored signage indicating where business entrances are.

“We put the lights up to make it feel brighter and more welcoming at night,” Heiney said.

The biggest draw for customers, though, Heiney thinks, is the free valet parking station located on Old Woodward, just south of Hamilton. Customers can take advantage of the free valet just by pulling up and telling the valet attendant how long they plan to stay. Guests can leave their phone number, and when they’re ready to head out, they can call or text 15 minutes ahead of time and their car will be ready when they arrive.

“We’ve had a really positive response to that,” he said. “It seems to really be helping out.”


A test run
City Manager Joe Valentine said that while all the efforts are being made to improve traffic for the businesses on Hamilton, it also serves as a pilot for what the city can do next year to help businesses while Old Woodward Avenue is under construction from Willits to Brown for a minimum of four months.

“It’s an evolution,” Valentine said. This is a smaller-scale project, and next year the project will be bigger. So the efforts we’re putting forward now will be even expanded.”

That means that weekly emails with updates and photos will hopefully include video by this time next year. The special events will continue, and of course the valet parking, which comes from the BSD’s budget.


Sales say it all
Commonwealth General Manager Alex Chisholm said traffic to the downtown coffee hotspot hasn’t been impacted much by the torn-up street in front of their café.

“It’s such a walkable city that, for the most part, our business is people who are already in the area for other things,” he said. “Once the structure nearby is full, it can be hard to find parking, but that tends to be the case even without construction. It hasn’t been too bad other than that, though, and I think the city is doing everything they can (to help).”

His comments seem to echo Nickita’s sentiments on the work.

“As I walked Hamilton and observed the challenge neighboring retailers and businesses are having with this kind of major construction, my thoughts are simply that we know it’s a challenge for them — it’s challenging to deal with these kinds of things, but it’s worth it in the end. It’s the classic analogy of breaking some eggs to make an omelet.”

For updates on the Hamilton Avenue construction project, visit www.bhamgov.org and click on the Construction Projects tab on the Engineering page under Departments.

To register for Hamilton Hums, a complimentary event, contact the chamber at (248) 430-7688 or visit www.bbcc.com.

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