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Main Street makeover makes navigating Williamsville even gnarlier

Williamsville's main drag is a real drag these days.

Crews are in the middle of an extensive construction project meant to calm traffic on this busy section of Main Street and make it easier for people to walk around the village.

But the Picture Main Street work is shrinking sections of the thoroughfare to one lane in each direction, temporarily stealing on-street parking spaces and tearing up sidewalks and entrances to businesses.

Store workers say they're fielding questions from customers asking how to navigate to their shops, and some say they've seen a drop in business since the work began.

Last week, the village was forced to cancel its annual Block Party, set for August, because the portion of Main Street that hosts the event remains a construction zone.

"It's a mess," said Robert Wittman, longtime owner of the Williamsville Liquor Store, who wished construction could take place at night instead of during the day.

Village and state transportation officials spent years planning the work on nearly two miles of Main Street, from the Youngmann Memorial Highway east to Williamsville South High School. The $3.7 million makeover includes bump-outs at intersections with signals, new sidewalks, benches and bike racks, and a special traffic-control beacon in front of town hall.

Other communities that have gone through similar construction woes – such as Hamburg and University Heights – say there is light at the end of the work zone as long as government and business leaders cooperate closely during the worst of the disruptions.

Project to slow traffic

The Williamsville section of Main Street carries about 36,000 vehicles daily and serves as Amherst's downtown business corridor. Village leaders have clamored for years for work that would slow down traffic and make it safer for people to get around Main Street on foot.

Overseen by the state Department of Transportation, the work is moving west to east and taking place in six stages.

Crews are ripping up and pouring new sidewalks, replacing uneven brick pavers with smooth concrete extending to the curb, and installing bump-outs, formally known as bulb-outs, that will restrict drivers from using parking lanes as turning lanes. Main Street, in front of the public library next to the Amherst Municipal Building, is set to get the region's third HAWK, or High-Intensity Activated crosswalk, signal later this year.

Jeff Bean, the owner of M.A. Laurie jewelers, said he's all in favor of it since drivers along Main Street have smashed into his parked car and hit him as he crossed near his shop.

"It'll all be good when it's done, and I give them a lot of credit," Bean said. "They have been moving along at a pretty good clip."

Contractors aren't doing anything to Main Street itself. But orange pylons have sprouted up and down both sides of the road, creating moving bottlenecks by constricting driving lanes in both directions. Those lane restrictions are in effect only between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. weekdays to avoid disrupting the morning and evening commutes, said Keaton DePriest, the village's community development director.

The Williamsville Business Association periodically sends upbeat tweets saying it's "business as usual" in the district, and signs on stores implore customers to visit in spite of the construction.

Lucy Adams, manager of the Second Chic consignment shop, said they had no advance warning to the work that began in June so they couldn't fully alert their customers to the project's effects.

With the sidewalk and store entrance torn up for about a month, the store has posted signs directing customers to walk around the corner to the back entrance where Second Chic typically collects items its customers turn in. "It has totally affected our business and just deterred people from stopping in," said Adams.

Not everyone is seeing the same downturn.

Lisa Noworyta, the assistant manager at JB's Tennis Shop, said the store has lost some business but it also has customers from throughout the region who need a racket strung, for example, or who need to pick up a racket to try out for a few days.

Many call ahead asking for the best alternate route into the village and the store has emailed its customers different ways to get to the shop. "And then we found that some of those routes were even closed off," Noworyta said.

Reneé Baker, a stylist at DeSalon, said she hasn't seen a drop-off, but the construction is a point of discussion every day. "People are still out and about," she said.

Lessons from Hamburg 

Williamsville Trustee Deborah Rogers said the village had little choice in canceling this year's Block Party, given the state of the sidewalks and the potential for an accident.

She also said when she took her children to the Old Home Days festival along Main Street in July, she was struck at how it appeared less crowded than in previous years. "We could go from ride to ride, and there was no line," Rogers said.

Hamburg, Orchard Park and the University Heights district all endured their own construction-related disruptions – some extending two or three years. But they say outreach and collaboration are the keys to surviving the disruption.

The Village of Hamburg was the site of a $21 million reconstruction project that followed Route 62 along Main and Buffalo streets in 2007 and 2008, installing four roundabouts and replacing water and some sewer lines.

"Now, I'm proud to say, the village is the place to be," said Laura Palisano Hackathorn, a Hamburg village trustee.

The village took several steps to ease the effects, said Hackathorn, who owns the What a Woman Wants boutique.

Stakeholders met every Monday over coffee and doughnuts to talk and troubleshoot. The village hired a part-time employee to field questions and dig up answers about the work. And officials organized monthly gatherings at different businesses to encourage people to spend money there. It was a flash mob, Hackathorn said, "before we knew what that was."

A massive, three-year project along Main Street in University Heights wrapped up in 2006. The $15 million in construction left behind repaved roads, new medians, coordinated traffic signals, better lighting, benches and bike racks.

Tucker Curtin, owner of the Lake Effect Diner and the Steer restaurant, said the work forced retailers to get creative. Even putting up fake construction signs – "Brake for a Shake" or "Hardhat Free Zone" with a picture of a cowboy hat – helped pull people in, Curtin said.

"So there is a way to do it, and we were fortunate where we were able to maintain our numbers," he said.

In Williamsville, the DOT on Friday said it has adjusted the project schedule, based in part on feedback from the village, but leaders still expect work to wrap up by the end of October.

Rogers, the trustee, compared the work to a home renovation.

"You remodel your bathroom, right? It's a complete mess. The whole house is in shambles. There's dust everywhere, right?" she said. "But when it's all said and done, you look at it and say, 'That was worth it.' So hopefully we will all look at this project and say it was worth it."

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