By Arielle Dollinger
Enveloped by the dull silver of chain link fences, the decades-old Gerard Street parking lot is in a period of transition – almost unrecognizable now, the Huntington village lot is home to yellow machinery, broken concrete and piles of dirt.
But beyond the dirt and behind the fences are businesses, their owners in a panic over the loss of about 160 parking spaces, and hoping that town officials are correct in telling them that the construction project is operating ahead of schedule.
Massa’s Pizzeria co-owner Andy McNulty said his business is “in horrible shape” without the parking spaces. He looks out his restaurant’s window and says that he does not see movement in the lot, which is the main source of parking for his restaurant and several other Main Street businesses, including those that face the lot itself.
“Actually, there is a truck in the distance that’s moving back and forth,” he said. “I just don’t see anything happening here.”
Town spokesman A.J. Carter said on Wednesday that the project is, in fact, on track. Having begun on July 16 – five days earlier than expected, following what Carter said was a miscommunication between the Town of Huntington and its contractor – phase one is still scheduled to finish in mid-October.
“The proceeding is, if anything, slightly ahead of schedule,” Carter said.
Meanwhile, valet parking numbers have increased. The service – available on Friday and Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. in the New Street lot – parked an estimated 600 cars each of the last two weekends, Carter said. But this jump in numbers, the spokesman said, is likely not a result of the Gerard Street construction, but rather of events at The Paramount on New York Avenue.
The town has seen increased usage of the recently-installed multi-space meters on Main Street and New York Avenue, as well, Carter said. Revenue has increased by “about 35 percent” since the start of construction, as compared to the two weeks preceding the project’s start. There are no available figures for the coin-operated meters, Carter said.
Many of the area’s businesses, including Rookies Sports Club, which also faces the Gerard lot, now offer to pay their clientele’s parking meter fees in an effort to keep business up.
“Business is definitely down,” said Rookies owner and manager Michelle Wright. “I don’t think it’s detrimental, but it’s down.”
As announced by email and on the Rookies website at the start of construction, the establishment has been paying for customers’ parking and has opened an entrance via the Arcade on Main Street.
“We’ve been here for so many years and we have so many loyal customers that I’m sure it’ll end up being fine,” Wright said. “We’re all doing the best we can… We know that the parking lot’s going to be great for us in the future.”
At Café Buenos Aires on nearby Wall Street, Hugo Garcia, though he is not quite next door to the torn up lot, feels the effects anyway.
The parking “problem,” he said, is nothing new – he said he has seen it since he came to Huntington in 1982. The construction is new, and has come at what Garcia said is “the wrong time.”
“Business-wise, has the business declined? Yes,” he said. “Not dramatically badly, but declined… There’s not many people even walking in town.”
At 5:15 p.m. last Friday, the cafe’s normally-buzzing outdoor seating area was silent. For Garcia, the summertime is typically busy.
For Bon Bons Chocolatier’s Susannah Meinersman, fall is the start of the busy season for her Main Street shop.
“It’s our slower time of the year, so it’s hard to judge exactly,” she said when asked about the effect the construction has had on the store’s customers.
But it is, she said, “a bit of a challenge.”
“It means finding new and unusual parking spaces for all the employees, and hopefully the customers are doing the same,” she said. “In general, the problem is that there’s just not enough parking… I think half the town parks in that parking lot [on Gerard Street].”
To help combat the effects of the parking loss, the Town of Huntington is providing a free shuttle from the Mill Dam parking lot in Halesite to the village.
According to Carter, shuttle ridership “has been incredibly sparse.”
“Total ridership is in the range of about 10,” Carter said on Wednesday, noting that two people rode it on Tuesday.
Meinersman said she and other merchants have discussed possible group advertising. In a similar mindset, the Huntington Township Chamber of Commerce has sponsored an advertising campaign to help promote the businesses most affected by the lot’s closure and is planning an event to help them; details will be announced soon.
Though Bon Bons has not seen the decrease in customers that some of its neighbors have, it has faced its own difficulties in recent days. One night this week, the store’s back door, which faces Gerard Street, got a tattoo: a graffiti tag.
“I don’t know if [the construction] lends to an atmosphere that people can hang out back there,” she said. “In all the years we’ve had very little of that, and then as soon as they put a fence up, we have that.”
The back door of neighboring shop Vine & Roses saw its own share of the destruction, albeit not likely due to vandalism. When owner Eileen Rosenbaum arrived at the store this past Saturday, she said, she noticed that part of the door was pushed in about 3 inches.
Police said the damage was probably an accident, but the town took action anyway. The lot is now lit after the sun sets, Rosenbaum said, thanks to a light on a sensor. The town also moved a fence on the south side to allow for a more direct walking path alongside the ripped-up lot.
“I really do feel at this point that the town is addressing our needs and that they’ve certainly been really good about addressing any problems that we’ve had,” Rosenbaum said.
Not all merchants are feeling effects from the construction. Rosenbaum said she has not seen a decrease in business.
“I don’t know if some people are sympathy shopping,” she said, noting that she emailed some of her customers to offer to pay for parking and to ask for support.
Marsh’s owner Chris Mitchell said he has not seen a change in business, either.
“This time of year for our store, it’s a little bit of a slower time with a lot of people away,” Mitchell said.
To him, the summertime seems like the right time to start construction.
“I respect the town for doing it,” he said of the project. “It’s never easy to do something like that.”
A business owner whose restaurant is in closer proximity to the Gerard Street lot, who requested anonymity, had the opposite reaction. When he called the town to complain, according to police, his words were taken as a threat.
Instead of a response to the voicemail he left for the town, he received a visit from the police.
“I was wrong because I called up and filed a complaint,” he said. “I said, ‘You’re lucky… a lynch mob doesn’t come down there… I guess that could’ve been taken as a threat; and I guess they [the town] have to follow up on threats.”
The call and voicemail were products of frustration – the construction has “absolutely” affected business, he said.
“Now everybody has to vie for these spots… The businesses and the people that are coming down to eat,” he said. “It is definitely affecting every business down here. How can it not? There’s no parking.”
Phase one of the two-phase construction project, set to make such improvements as resurfacing, installing a bioswale drainage system and adding about 10 spaces, has closed two-thirds of the 235-space lot to the public.
“It [the parking lot] has not been redone since practically it was built in the 1950s,” Carter said.
The 75-or-so remaining spaces in the lot, to be open until phase two of construction begins in mid-October, are a conglomerate of all-day and two-hour parking spots – for now.
In an effort to keep spaces available for shoppers, Carter said, the “all-day” spots may turn into “two-hour” ones.