SOUTH PASADENA — Fair Oaks Avenue will be in various stages of controlled disorder for the next seven months while it undergoes a $1.3-million face lift that has rankled merchants and snarled traffic along the city's main thoroughfare.
The heavily traveled, four-lane avenue has been reduced to a narrow, two-lane road while bulldozers rip out the crumbling asphalt and sidewalks on the west side of Fair Oaks. In three to four months, the scene will be repeated on the east side.
Heart of the City
When all is done, the one-mile stretch between Monterey Road and Columbia Street will be concrete, and there will be new sidewalks, lamp posts and landscaping.
But for now, Fair Oaks Avenue, which cuts through the heart of this city and provides its main link to the Pasadena Freeway, is a big mess.
Behind flying dust and heavy machinery, businesses on Fair Oaks are suffering. Some store owners say their business is off by more than 50%.
"It's been really slow. At first we couldn't even break even," said Dave Andrus, who works at Mrs. B's cookie shop near the corner of Fair Oaks and Oxley Avenue. The store was forced to close for a day and a half, Andrus said, because of dirt and dust from the road work going on outside the door.
"We had a jackhammer tearing up the sidewalk two inches from our window," Andrus said. " I don't think they know what they're doing."
A few doors down, at Stokes Television, owner Tom Carson looked around his empty store and smiled. "We've lost quite a bit of walk-in business," Carson said. "But in another 100 years or so we'll all forget about it. Even though we complain a lot about it, you've got to have some inconvenience to get convenience."
Some Businesses Hurt
Not all merchants can afford to be as tolerant, Carson said. "I feel sorry for the businesses that are really on a shoestring budget; a couple months of losing business will really almost wipe them out."
Although city officials proudly point to the street overhaul as a major redevelopment project, they say they are aware of the plight of business owners along Fair Oaks.
"Many of them are hurting," public works director Pat Lang said. "And we do what we can. But we can't stop the project. It has to be done."
Traffic problems have not gone unnoticed, either.
"The first day it was utter chaos," Lang said. "But since then traffic has subsided and drivers are using alternate routes."
Revamping of Fair Oaks, which is traveled by about 28,000 cars each day, has been five years in the planning and is the largest road project South Pasadena has ever undertaken. City planners saved gasoline tax revenues for years and solicited federal funds until they had enough to finance the work, Lang said.
"No significant work had been done to (Fair Oaks) for about 30 years," Lang said.
Rail Tracks Uncovered
That point was proven recently when construction crews were slowed briefly by an unexpected remnant of local history. Underneath the badly pot-holed asphalt were tracks from the Pacific Electric Railway, the "Big Red Cars" that ran through South Pasadena from the late 1800s to about 1950.
"That tells you how long it's been since any serious work has been done there," Lang said.
Instead of using asphalt, the city decided to repave the street in concrete, which is more expensive but lasts about 60 years longer and needs much less maintenance, Lang said.
To help merchants and commuters, South Pasadena has initiated a free Shopper Stopper shuttle bus that circles the downtown area every 20 minutes and stops wherever it is hailed along the route. If ridership is high enough, Lang said, the shuttle may become a permanent service.
Meanwhile, shoppers and sellers are adjusting to the inconvenience, some better than others. One disgruntled businessman, who refused to give his name, raised his arms in exasperation at the mound of dirt in front of his store. "Just forget that Fair Oaks exists," he said. "That's what I tell my customers."