There may never be a good time to take on a major construction project in a crowded area of a major city, but some times may be worse than others.
Like May, June, July and August.
Just ask the merchants and residents in and around the West Portal Avenue corridor of San Francisco who have had to endure a summer of delays and detours due to the work by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on St. Francis Circle, the busiest traffic crossing in the entire city.
Transit officials are hoping to finish the construction project by the end of this week. People in the neighborhood are praying that’s true. It’s been this way for seven days a week since May 8.
St. Francis may have been benevolent, but the circle named for him is not.
And four months of construction have had a sizable impact on businesses in the area — to the point that people have been bypassing the roads around West Portal rather than get stuck in a traffic delay.
I know this is true because I’m one of them.
“We know it was a necessary project, but things turned upside down for everyone,” said Elliot Wagner, who owns Dimitra’s Skincare and MediSpa on West Portal. “It’s been pretty much a disaster for the merchants.’’
For those who fear to venture to the mean streets of the west side, St. Francis Circle is the intersection where Sloat Boulevard, West Portal Avenue, and Portola and Junipero Serra boulevards converge — four busy thoroughfares that make it the most heavily traveled intersection in The City.
Two Muni Metro lines cross it and it’s the gateway to Interstate 280, along with being the route thousands of people take to get to San Francisco State University, Stonestown Galleria, and several high schools and grammar schools.
So when the SFMTA announced that there will be “more delays and parking problems,” as it did Friday, people took notice. And scat.
“I’m sure they’re doing the best they could, but the traffic situation has been pretty ridiculous,” said real estate agent Paul Barbagelata, whose family has had an office on West Portal Avenue for more than 50 years.
Yet the real problem, according to merchants on the street, is that the scale of work that transportation officials needed to do to replace the rail and utility lines in the intersection, fix the sewer systems and renovate passenger boarding areas was not properly translated when they were told construction was to begin.
They didn’t understand that Ulloa Street — one of the main arteries leading to the area — would be backed up by a queue of light-rail vehicles, that blocks of parking spaces would be eliminated and that traffic would be detoured away from West Portal.
“There was advance notice on everything, but they presented it in general terms without many of the details,” Wagner said. “And the information, from the general to the specific, made a world of difference. We never understood how bad it would be.”
Now that it’s nearing completion, SFMTA officials say they’re hearing a lot more positive views from people near the site.
“We’re dead on schedule and people realize that the work needed to be done,” said Carter Rohan, the SFMTA’s director of capital programs and construction. “I think the views of the work are now pretty favorable.”
That’s because it’s almost over. Transit officials are now in testing mode for the new rail lines and equipment. Last weekend’s flurry of activity was the last big push to the finish — they promise.
“That intersection hadn’t been touched in 35 years,” said the district’s supervisor, Sean Elsbernd, who received a fair share of complaints. “The work couldn’t be put off forever. When you drove through there before, you actually felt it. You could have drowned in some of the puddles in the potholes on that street.”
Wagner said he was hoping that the SFMTA would do something to let people know that the West Portal area was back open for business, perhaps adding a banner or a happy face or something across the sainted intersection.
Removing the backhoes, signal alerts and the detour signs will probably work just as well.