Businesses, motorists trying to persevere as North Atherton Street undergoes needed improvements
It’s the noon hour on a typical, sweltering, State College summer Thursday, a time when restaurants serve a lunchtime crowd, dollar amounts on convenience stores' gas pumps swell, and the doors of a variety of businesses are pushed open and closed, powered by patrons.
Except on North Atherton Street, that is. You know the one. That one-lane, bump-riddled, truck-filled, dusty, divided highway that, frankly, has become the bane of local drivers' existence because of ongoing construction projects. Advice that has been offered on local radio stations about driving on Atherton Street has been simple and direct: DON'T.
People still do, of course, because they have to. But fewer of them are pulling into some of the North Atherton Street businesses. And while summer construction is in full bloom at many locations in and around State College, traffic from mid-May to mid-August is tolerable, even if some of North Atherton Street is confined to one lane and your vehicle's brakes and shock absorbers are wondering what they ever did to you.
But as Penn State's fall academic session commences, traffic at the very least triples, the one-lane congestion – particularly during morning and afternoon rush hours – switches from maybe a few hundred yards to at times nearly a mile, and frustrations mount within steering wheel-clenching drivers.
None of which helps North Atherton Street establishments.
"I had more expectation of business," says Medhat Aziz, who bought the former Snappy's on North Atherton Street and opened a Uni-Mart. "It's very hard to cover our expenses. Thank God I have more than one store, so as a bundle … this by itself could not cover.
"Unfortunately, even if we have the best price in gas and the best price in merchandise, people who have changed their [driving] habits, it's very hard for them to change them back again. It doesn't happen overnight; it takes months and years until they change them back again."
On one particular July Thursday lunch hour – and it's not unique – two booths were occupied by a total of four people inside TGI Fridays restaurant at 1215 North Atherton Street. One other person occupied a round table in the bar area and the bar stools themselves were devoid of thirsty, hungry customers.
"Business has been affected terribly," says A.J. Diehl, the restaurant's manager. "We've had times where we've had to actually shut down because they've hit water mains. We've had no business even coming in because we couldn't be operating because they made a couple mistakes and things like that."
Penang, a restaurant that serves Asian fusion cuisine and sits next to Fridays, has had similar problems, having its entrance blocked at times and seeing business dwindle.
"For dining customers, it's reduced at least 50 percent," says Penang employee Sky Chang. "And also for drivers, it's hard to get in and out. Customers having issues coming in … they probably only know the entrance from the front. Some people don't know they can come in from the back."
By now, everyone in the Centre Region knows this project is not a temporary pothole-patching undertaking from Aaron Drive to Curtin Road. It started in 2017, will continue through November this year, and it will stretch into the spring of 2020, according to PennDOT District 2 press spokesperson Marla Fannin.
The project is replacing and relocating utility lines, storm drains, sewer lines, major water pipelines, and even fiber optic lines; it includes curbing and sidewalks and ADA ramps as well as traffic signal upgrades, median strips, and various other paving. Lane restrictions are eased for big events in State College, such as Penn State home football games, graduation, and the annual Festival of the Arts.
It’s not the type of work that makes the average driver thankful for the work being done, despite the fact that it has to be done.
It is a four-phase operation with two phases remaining on Atherton Street but eventually heading south – from Park Avenue to Westerly Parkway … and then beyond. That project will be bid in late 2020 and work is expected to begin in 2021, according to Fannin. A Centre Region Planning Agency spokesman has said that the two upcoming phases are "big projects" that will lead to longer construction times and cause more commuter delays.
Whether the future projects will cause similar financial problems on South Atherton Street remains to be seen because there are more side streets and main roads that connect to South Atherton, but businesses' profit margins are heading south on North Atherton these days.
"They've had parts where we just couldn't even get into our entrance because they've had it blocked off or they had the road built up … they had it all dug out," Diehl adds about his TGI Fridays location. "Up until we started complaining a little bit and they finally put some signage to show people where they could enter, they had to go through the back where the hotels (the Sleep Inn and Comfort Inn) are.
"A lot of people have said they've spent 15 or 20 minutes trying to figure out how to get in here. Some people do just give up; some don't because we have some specials that people would like to get in for. But I mean it's just been a really, really rough year for us."
Transportation officials say it is understandable why business owners – and drivers – are frustrated.
"Oh, yeah, definitely. A lot of the reason behind that is the type of work that we're doing there," says PennDOT engineer Marc Maney, the project's inspector in charge. "Typically, you would see us do some drainage and then put curbs and sidewalks in and then come through and pave it. If that was all the work we were doing, there's a good chance it could have been done in one year.
"The problem that's made it last so long and it's as frustrating as it is, is because of all the utility work that we had to do in conjunction with the project. Typically, we don't deal with that large of a workload on these projects."
Maney says about a dozen utility companies have been involved; water lines were replaced from one end of the project to the other, sewer lines about half of that distance, and a gas line that went through prior to the project impacted the project's start date. Plus, he says, communication lines that were either overhead or underground were relocated or replaced.
Some homeowners have draped plastic or canvas coverings over fences or porches to combat dust, and some have had inch-thick steel plates spanning the space from the street to their driveways in order to allow access over the torn-up highway or missing curbs.
Pedestrians who currently are unable to cross Atherton Street at Park Avenue should be able to resume their regular walking habits by late September, according to Maney. All of which means that drivers are aware that this ongoing road construction eventually will go away, even though it’s leaving a mark at the moment.
While restaurants and convenience stories have been inconvenienced, so, too, have businesses offering overnight or extended lodging. Keriann Smith, business manager at the Sleep Inn hotel at 111 Village Drive, just off of North Atherton, says the construction has caused some turmoil for guests.
"I would say it has affected the hotel business just because it confuses our guests who are coming in one day and one exit's blocked and the next day it's open but then the next one they are coming in, it's now blocked; it's confusing for people," Smith says.
Smith, who also mentions waterline outages that had affected guests and caused unfavorable online reviews, says Sleep Inn doesn't have it as bad as TGI Fridays because incoming guests have already booked rooms and they fulfill the reservation.
"So we're always trying to make sure our signage is good. But what has been affected is walk-ins; we don't have people driving by that need hotel rooms that are looking at our hotel and say, 'We should go right in there,'" Smith says.
"Especially when there are signs at both ends of town that say 'Avoid Atherton.' If they're avoiding Atherton, they're not walking into our hotels and booking that night."
Jeff Harman, owner of the Stevens Motel, which has sat on North Atherton Street since 1964, has seen fewer bookings as well, but understands the daily show of construction must go on.
“It definitely has had an impact," Harman says. "Progress is tough. I understand what we're trying to accomplish with the road improvement and the infrastructure with the sewage, gas, and water. … I understand construction. I wish it could be more timely, but I trust they are doing the best they can. It's frustrating, yeah."
That's because he's seen a significant financial impact this year, he says.
"Ironically, last year when they were digging right in front of my place and had my property blocked off, I did fine," Harman says.
"I think the awareness of people staying off Atherton, perhaps, and the backups are affecting things. There's no doubt I've heard from other businesses that it's definitely affecting business here. This year, I can't attribute it all to the Atherton Street project, but my business is down."
The project’s workers, many of whom work for State College contractor Glenn O. Hawbaker Inc., attempt to be immune to criticism from drivers and merchants, but it's not easy, according to Maney.
"Oh, yeah, you can stand out there for less than five minutes and it doesn't matter who you are. If you have a hardhat and vest on, you'll either get a verbal or you'll be able to see a visual dissatisfaction from the public … that's for sure," he says.
"But the workers out there are more interested in listening to the back-up alarms and making sure that they're out of the way [of danger]. You have workers out there who start at 7 in the morning and they work out there till 7, 8, 9 o'clock at night. Sometimes I feel for them out there; they're not in air conditioning, they're out in the heat.
"I can understand 100 percent it's frustrating when you get stuck in traffic; that's the last thing you want to do after you worked all day or you want to get somewhere. But we do what we have to do."
As will Aziz, the Uni-Mart owner who might have to go through this again when construction moves to South Atherton, where he owns another convenience store.
"I don't know what I'm gonna do, but we'll do the best we can," he says.
What business owners and motorists can do is believe there is a final chapter to this construction novel and turn the page accordingly.
"Anybody who travels through there on a regular basis is frustrated," PennDOT's Fannin says. "What we have been trying to impart to folks as we go through the project is there are a lot of facets going on with the project that people don't necessarily see all the time.
"The stuff that's underneath that for the most part is not seen but is still restricting traffic, that's a little bit harder for our customers to understand. They're doing that kind of utility work that has a real direct, real specific impact on the quality of life for residents (and businesses)."
Jim Carlson is a freelance writer living – and driving – in State College.