By Alan Burke
PEABODY — The transformation of Main Street has begun, and downtown Peabody merchants seem convinced of two things — the disruption is both terrible and entirely necessary.
“This month, business has been horrible,” said Teresa Capela of Teresa’s Crafters Boutique. “... I’m hoping it will get better. That’s why I’m still here.”
“It’s going to help downtown Peabody,” said Roseanne DeFilippo, who has operated Roseanne Hair Salon for 23 years. “And we need it. We need it to look nice just like Danvers Square.”
The project began at the end of August, and the process of digging up the sidewalks started Sept. 4. Currently, sidewalks are gone on one side of the road. All that remains is dirt and sand for an area stretching from just outside the square up to and beyond the Peabody Institute Library.
At the same time, heavy equipment is breaking up sections of the road. Commuters were braced for the worst as the wide four lanes are narrowed to two.
The aim, Mayor Ted Bettencourt said, is to get drivers to slow down, to create a less hectic atmosphere and more parking, and perhaps entice customers to stop and pop into the stores. While the work is ongoing, drivers, including the hundreds who pass through daily on their way to Salem and Marblehead, have been waved into makeshift lanes.
“I did get some phone calls early on from some drivers,” Bettencourt said. “Mainly people from Salem. But I haven’t recently. But there will be rough days.”
The Main Street renovation is slated to provide decorative streetlamps, greenery, brick sidewalks and “bump-outs” intended to extend the sidewalks into the road and make crossing the street less hazardous. All that is only the first step in a three-step program, the mayor said.
The next project will be flood mitigation in the square, followed by a redesign of the square that will include moving the Civil War Memorial to a site in front of the courthouse.
In the meantime, businesses are feeling the pinch.
Business is a little slow, Maria DaCosta said, “especially for old people.” Outside of her Nu-Look Hair Salon, the sidewalk is gone, and she regards it skeptically. “It’s especially a problem for old people. They can’t walk on the sidewalk like this.”
On the other hand, as she talked, she fielded a number of requests for appointments, and she’s optimistic about the long-term impact. “I think it will be nice after it’s done,” she said.
Further, she praised the efforts of the city to keep her informed — as, for example, when her water was briefly turned off.
Teresa Capela’s boutique is a lot quieter.
“Today, I had nobody come in,” she said. “Yesterday, two people.” What’s more, the sidewalk on her side of the street is still intact. What happens when they dig it up?
She worries that the work will run on until Christmas, a key season for a 2-year-old shop that features dolls and doll clothing.
“Why didn’t they start earlier?” she asked.
Bettencourt said he is confident that the work will be done in November.
Business might be off a little, said Koorosh Rad of Peabody Estate Buyers. “But when it gets done, it will be much, much better. ... Traffic will slow down. People will walk on the sidewalk. More important, nobody will get killed crossing the street.”
The trek across busy Main Street has led to a number of accidents, and DeFilippo can remember seeing such mishaps right outside her salon’s window. She’s hopeful that the changes won’t make it more difficult for drivers to get out of sidewalk parking spaces.
“And I’m worried about the traffic island they’re going to put in the middle of the street,” she added. Will it really make the street safer?
In response, City Planner Blair Haney noted that the original plan for a center traffic island has been much altered after consultation with safety officials, reducing it to short stretches.
“It is a challenge,” said Chamber of Commerce Director Deanne Healey. “Unfortunately, there are definitely going to be some businesses that are going to feel the impact of (construction).” But she added, “The general response of businesses has been positive, very positive.”
It’s an upgrade that’s long overdue, most said. Once done, Rad indicated, Peabody businesses will be more competitive with shops in other cities and town.
“I feel sorry for Salem,” he said with a laugh.