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Cultural Trail progress stalled

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The vision of a Circle City flowing with healthy bike and pedestrian traffic is blurring in Fountain Square as local businesses struggle with virtual road rage.

The neighborhood, which is trying to incubate locally owned restaurants and stores to bolster its reputation as one of the city's cultural destination points, is suffering deep bruising from the rampant, widespread and long-neglected construction zone that will (eventually) be the southeast corridor of the Cultural Trail.

Across the board, the merchants in Fountain Square are suffering cash-flow-killing side effects of the construction zone, which has obliterated sidewalks and obstructed parking since March.

"It's not just the places on Virginia Ave., it's the whole district, because it looks like a dump down here," says Craig Von Deylen, president of the Fountain Square Merchants Association. "I was initially for all for this, but now it's nothing but a lot of finger pointing and talking in circles."

Fountain Foliage's recent announcement that it will close, on top of the recent demise of both Square Rootz Deli and Venus and Mars Fashion Exchange, worries the remaining businesses who are struggling to hold on, Von Deylen says.

The Cultural Trail is one of two projects underway geared, in part, to better serve the 2012 Super Bowl traffic. Overall, a total of 100 infrastructure contracts are currently under construction across Indy, including 276 street segments, about 10 percent of which are on downtown streets. The rest of the city's roadwork, Public Works Director David Sherman said at a meeting with reporters last Thursday, is allocated throughout the neighborhoods using a pavement condition index that considers ratios of factors such as how worn the pavement is and the volume of traffic flow.

The city bid out projects worth an estimated $638 million in 2010, according to figures provided by the Department of Public Works. Minority-owned businesses won 14 percent of the projects while women-owned enterprises earned 7 percent and veteran-owned businesses won 0.7 percent.

Construction on the Cultural Trail began in 2007; so far, the east corridor, the northeast corridor and the north corridor have been completed. Four corridors remain to be finished, in addition to landscaping. Much of the construction has been on schedule, but in some areas it has lagged significantly. Construction is part of city life, but for some, it's moving beyond inconvenience and into make-it-or-break-it territory.

As weeds patches decorate the dirt piles along the unfinished Cultural Trail, Craig's wife, Jennifer Von Deylen, who owns IndySwank on Virginia Ave., says her business is in jeopardy of failing because the streets and sidewalks have been a "destruction zone" since March of this year.

The project in Fountain Square has been delayed due to utility relocations and because engineers uncovered old railroad tracks on Virginia Ave., from Prospect to Leonard Street, says Kara Brooks, a Department of Public Works spokeswoman. Crews are working to remove those tracks and target completion of the project by the year's end, she adds.

The city plans to complete construction by Dec. 31, 2011. But for IndySwank, and all of the other merchants in Fountain Square, that sounds like a death sentence: A complete loss for the rest of the nice weather, and a loss for the holiday season — usually peak earning times.

"December 31st," Jennifer Von Deylen says, "is not good news for us."

The Fountain Square Merchants Association began pressing the city for answers about the Cultural Trail construction from the project's inception and keeps pressing. So far, says Craig Von Deylen, people associated with the construction are reluctant to talk, and in-person communication is vastly different than anything put in writing.

"At first they were not even going to start [construction on] our section [of the Cultural Trail] until later," Von Deylen says. "And then they said to us, 'Well, we'll start your section first, and our intention is to be finished by July, so you guys will be done first.' And that would have been fantastic."

Instead, construction commenced only to stop almost as soon as it began, leaving the streets and sidewalks destroyed.

To the Von Deylens, it's a clear case of bureaucratic runaround.

"I don't give excuses, I go out there and fix the problem; they don't seem to be fixing the problem, they just keep pointing the finger at other people," says Craig, who, as the former owner of a construction company, has an appreciation for the fine art of project management.

Many Indianapolis residents promote better bicycle access between the city's neighborhoods. Fountain Square's disgruntled cries are not in response to the concept of the Cultural Trail, just the execution.

The neglected construction site is growing weeds tall enough to justify the attention of the city's nuisance weed crew, though no such cleanup has materialized. Meanwhile, local businesses hope to survive long enough to judge whether a completed Cultural Trail will live up to its promise of urban redemption.

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