Zohreh Khaleghi recently had to cancel two big dinner parties at her Magazine Street restaurant Flaming Torch because a federal contractor working on a construction project along Jefferson Avenue disconnected her water service without warning her first.
Khaleghi said the canceled parties are perhaps the most dramatic example of what it’s like to own a business on an Uptown stretch of Magazine Street that has been upended by a major infrastructure construction project for more than two years.
“We have a great area, our area is prime, but, unfortunately, it looks like a ghost town right now. Nobody wants to come over here,” she said. “I think if this continues to happen, not just me, but most of that area is going to have to close business.”
Khaleghi made an appeal for relief to the New Orleans Sewerage & Water Board at its monthly meeting Wednesday.
Flaming Torch and dozens of other businesses and residences around Magazine and Jefferson are being affected by the ongoing work to build drainage canals to reroute storm water from existing Nashville Avenue and Napoleon Avenue canals.
The $102 million piece of the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project — known as SELA — is scheduled to wrap up in September 2017. It involves adding a canal under Jefferson Avenue from Constance Street to South Claiborne Avenue and another along Prytania Street from Nashville Avenue to Jefferson.
Some business owners say they are at their wits’ end with the traffic snarls, interrupted water service, trash and debris the construction has caused. They also worry about being able to stay in business as the project winds on for more than two years.
Kay Charbonnet, who owns the clothing store Kay’s in the 5400 block of Magazine, called on the Sewerage & Water Board to provide some type of relief.
“All of our businesses are suffering, and some for the past two years. Our clients and customers tell us repeatedly that they cannot get to our establishments and have now come to avoid our area altogether,” Charbonnet said.
“Magazine Street is the premier shopping corridor of this amazing city. I am sure this is not how improvements are handled in Beverly Hills or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, Manhanttan’s SoHo or even the Second Street district in Austin, Texas.”
Mandy Burke, who manages the EarthSavers spa at Magazine and Octavia streets, said customers who do make it through the maze of traffic to the spa chance being greeted by disconnected water service — a major impairment for a business that relies on water to provide many of its services.
Complicating matters even more, the federal contractor on the job either doesn’t provide advance notice of disconnections or provides the wrong day, Burke said.
“When they do give us a flier that says the water will be turned off, it won’t happen on that day,” she said. “We’re waiting a few days to see if this is the day that it happens.”
The spa makes do by using bottled water, Burke said. But the impact is “detrimental to business” because the disconnections usually take place during the peak business period of 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.
S&WB General Superintendent Joseph Becker said the agency is limited in its ability to ensure a resolution.
The SELA project is administered through an agreement between the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which hires the contractors, and the Sewerage & Water Board, which picks up the tab.
Becker said the S&WB does not have a relationship with the federal contractors on the project, Cajun Construction and B&K Construction Co., and cannot give them orders. All it can do is receive complaints from residents and business owners through its hotline, present them to the Corps and “ask them to work with us to resolve those issues,” Becker said.
Board Chairman Ray Manning asked that representatives from the Corps and Cajun, which is overseeing the work near Magazine Street, both make appearances at the next S&WB meeting.
He said the board should intervene because it will likely be on the hook to pay for claims of business interruption caused by the construction.
“Although we clearly understand that this is a Corps project, the financial responsibility for these claims is going to come to the Sewerage & Water Board,” Manning said. “Therefore we should be attempting to mitigate those claims as best we can.”