Stop Your Railing!

Sure, light-rail construction is painful, but it will be worth it in the long haul

"It will create, you know, that high mixed-use density, which then adds property values, provides more individuals to support existing and new businesses, which all provides retail and property tax to government, that then allows government to be able to afford to hire more police and fire and librarians," Gordon says.

Ron Evjen, the regional leasing director for Renaissance Square, says light rail — along with other projects like ASU's fledgling Phoenix campus — is already sparking demand for downtown Phoenix office space.

Three banks have signed long-term leases at the 26- and 28-story Renaissance buildings in the past year, including Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver's business, Alliance Bank.

"Banking is ahead of the curve — they can see the benefit," Evjen says. "They know it's going to be a little slow until the light rail is completed, but . . . the traffic that the light rail is going to bring is going to be very positive."


The latest update on Metro's Web site (http://www.valleymetro.org/METRO_light_rail/) says that while sections of Central, Washington and Jefferson will be torn up until the end of 2007, much of the downtown Phoenix work will be done by this coming March.

On First Avenue and Jefferson Street, the main roadwork in front of the Luhrs Tower is already finished. The steel track is embedded in concrete, the sewer lines and fiber optics and gas lines have been relocated.

Businesses in the one-story building just east of the historic Luhrs had it rough while construction went on right outside their shops.

By November it had eased up, but the owners of the nearby 22-year-old Flower Stand shop wonder whether their business will survive another year.

Next door to the flower shop is an empty storefront with a sign on the door: "Sorry, this location [of Red Seven Computers] is closed until January 2007 due to the impact of light rail construction."

Michael Cady, one of Red Seven's owners, says the store had been open for about six months when construction began in June on that part of Jefferson Street.

"It was instantaneous," Cady says of the effect on business. "Boom! It was like the hammer came down."

The downtown store had been getting in five to 10 people a day — suddenly its owners were lucky if they got that many in a week. But they were stuck with their lease. Red Seven will come back to downtown in the first half of 2007, Cady says.

"We think it will totally pay off for us," he says. "We feel downtown will finally be reborn."

But, for now, it's cheaper to pay the rent with the store closed than to try to keep it open. The sales-and-repair business has three other Valley locations to subsidize its decision to keep the downtown store closed.

Sometimes it's not just the construction giving businesses a hard time — it's their landlords. Light rail promises that property owners will be able to charge higher rents, and some of them are already doing that long before the trains are running. So some stores strapped for business because of rail construction are also seeing their rents jacked up.

Daniel Peralta says he was already struggling to pay the bills at his restaurant, Nick's 101 Bistro on First Avenue, when his landlord doubled his rent to more than $10,000 a month.

"We are [right now] paying high rent for a corner with no access," Peralta says. "We are determined to survive."

Best of luck. The "Nick" in the eatery's name comes from Nick Ligidakis, the chef who has infamously failed at five or six other restaurant ventures since the mid-1980s.

Of all the problems business owners must deal with related to light rail, perhaps the worst is being utterly unprepared for it. Like Ben Bahmae, who not only failed to plan for the trumpeted construction outside his convenience store on West Camelback Road, but says he didn't even know the work would go on in the daytime.

Bahmae, who moved to the Valley in 2006 from Los Angeles, says he worked for the previous owner for six months before buying the store in August.

"I thought it was going to be nighttime construction only," he says.

Now he wants Metro to pay his bills for a few months, since he's experiencing a 40 percent drop in business.

"I made a mistake," he says. "I'm very disappointed."

Four contractors are building light rail's 20-mile starter line nearly simultaneously in five segments. The project also includes a new bridge over Tempe's Town Lake and a $58 million maintenance and storage yard for the trains near Loop 202 and the Salt River bed.

Overseeing everything is Metro, the nonprofit public company (officially known as Valley Metro Rail Inc.) that is in charge of building and operating the Valley's light-rail system. Its board of directors consists of the cities involved in the project.

Both the project and Metro have avoided any major debacles so far.

There was one mini-scandal over the summer: Metro fired Vicki Barron, the project's director of design and construction, in October after the panel decided she had improperly tried to influence consultants for the project to hire an engineering firm run by her boyfriend.

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