Eight years after a problem-plagued refurbishment project, city officials are giving serious consideration to tearing down the system of porticos covering sidewalks in the Uptown business district. They say removal of the canopies — called the Pike Plan after original designer John Pike — could be more cost-effective than having to keep paying to fix recurring problems with drainage, wood rot and other structural issues.
“The question is, if we’re going to have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to inspect and renovate it, what would be the cost to just take it down,” said Common Council Majority Leader Rennie Scott-Childress, who is examining the issue for the council’s Finance Committee.
The Pike Plan canopies, which cover portions of Wall and North Front streets, were built in the 1970s as the business district struggled to compete with a new generation of suburban strip malls. By the mid-2000s, the canopies were badly deteriorated. A refurbishment project was conceived in 2006 and funded with $1.8 million, the bulk made up of federal highway funds, in 2008. Following a series of delays and setbacks, the project was finally completed in November 2011. The project included replacing canopy roofs with new angled ones, installing skylights and replacing deteriorated support columns.
Problems with the refurbishment project became apparent almost immediately. Property owners complained of water seeping into buildings through the canopies, unsightly concrete work and crumbling masonry. The city filed a lawsuit against several contractors involved in the project, alleging shoddy workmanship and eventually recouped $315,000 in a settlement.
But problems with the canopy persist. The issue of removing them altogether came up earlier this month when the Finance Committee approved design work for repairing a particularly bad section of the structure on North Front Street. The estimate for the work ran to $125,000.
“That brought up the question, if this one section is going to cost us $125,000, what are the other 40 or so sections going to cost us,” said Mayor Steve Noble.
Support for removing the Pike Plan predates the restoration project. Indeed, during the planning and design phase, many owners of property adjacent to the canopies objected strenuously to the refurbishment. Eventually a wide majority of the 39 Pike Plan property owners signed a petition calling for the canopies to be removed rather than renovated. Many business owners complained that the canopies detracted from their storefronts and made it difficult to create an alluring environment for shoppers. Others worried about damage to their buildings and other ongoing problems related to the Pike Plan. For Pike Plan critics, the situation was made even more galling by the fact that, at the time of the renovation project, owners of canopy-adjacent buildings were charged a special assessment for their maintenance and upkeep and a $100,000 bond was issued in their name for initial design work on the renovation. The city has since dissolved the quasi-governmental Pike Plan Commission and assumed all costs related to the canopies.
“The people who were raising these issues back then are in a position to say, ‘I told you so,” said Noble.
While the city engineer’s office works up estimates for additional repairs or removal of the canopies, Noble said he plans to start a conversation with community stakeholders about whether the city should invest in repair or removal.
“I want to be able to talk to the business owners about the Pike Plan,” said Noble. “It’s city infrastructure that is attached to their properties, so the conversation really starts with them.”