Gateway Circle ~
Following a Friendlier West Street into 21st Century Annapolis
story & photos by Mark Burns
At the counter by the door at Jim's Corner sit three hardhats, one labeled "Liz," the others "Bill" and "Chris."
"They gave us these hardhats so we can come outside and watch what's going on," explains Bill Alexopulos. He and his wife, Liz, own and run the landmark diner on West Street. Chris, their 12-year-old grandson, comes in occasionally to help out and often ventures outside with his grandfather to watch construction.
In spite of the mounds of dirt, water main pipes and heavy machinery at the diner's doorstep, the Alexopuloses remain in good spirits. "It gives us something to watch," says Bill Alexopulos.
Jim's Corner lies near the epicenter of Annapolis' Gateway Circle construction. The new $7.9 million circle - paid for by the city with help from the state and county - is scheduled to be finished with its 20 months of construction by December 1999. It is the first of two projects to reinvigorate the inner corridor of West Street between Brown Street and Church Circle.
Gateway Circle construction is déjà vu all over again. In 1995 on Main Street, merchants were cut off from all but pedestrian traffic for about a year as crews razed the old street and laid down the new. By the time it was finished, the new brick-paved, tree-lined, power line-free streetscape was widely greeted with delight.
Jim's Corner and many of its neighbor businesses are similarly situated, but they don't seem to mind. City and construction crews have helped by keeping West Street Annapolitans abreast of changes; project foremen routinely go door to door at homes and businesses abutting the construction to clue locals in. Signs also encourage consumerism along the corridor, directing drivers to parking and Jim's Corner, peeking out from behind back hoes, trucks and orange fencing. Along the routes into the construction area, still more signs read during construction please support West Street merchants.
"Everybody's been absolutely wonderful. The construction company, the city, everybody," says Alexopulos. "Our business is doing really good. Our regulars still come by and we get a lot of construction guys. We really get quite a mix of people in here."
The mix of people who frequent Jim's Corner includes a makeshift squadron of current and retired pilots, policemen and an ethnic, racial and blue collar/white collar mix from Annapolis, Eastport, Edgewater, Severna Park and beyond. More recently, hungry construction workers have sauntered up to the counter alongside the loyal patrons. Nearly all of Jim's Corner customers are regulars, and most of them have made it in during construction in spite of the gnarled traffic and limited parking.
Since early May of this year, construction workers have been uprooting and replacing West Street's derelict water mains, sewer mains, storm mains and gas mains. The circle has already taken shape, with some of the new curbs and roadbeds already in place. Cherry Hill Construction crews are on par to finish up the project by the December 1999 deadline.
So why should businesses, residents and commuters endure the skewed traffic patterns, long backups and unsightly rubble?
"This area really needed beautification," notes John Broderick, sales manager of the car dealership G&M Imports at West Street and Amos Garrett Boulevard.
It doesn't take a sharp eye to see that parts of West Street are a bit tattered. Crumbling curbs and sidewalks line much of the street, power lines dangle above and patchwork pavement makes for a bumpy ride into downtown Annapolis and its historic district.
Change comes in the form of aesthetic improvements, such as buried power and phone lines, spiffier walkways, park benches and greenery. For these reasons, West Street locals are, for the most part, patient with construction yet anxious to see the circle finished.
"It's really not that bad," says Dariel Lamar of the construction in front of his house near the intersection of Spa Road and West Street. "I guess it's going to look nice when it's finished; I'd like to see how it turns out."
Gateway Circle's creators promise a pretty streetscape and then some.
Planners hope not only to cure the bumpy ride and clean up looks but also to spark a deeper revival. Urban design planner Dirk Geratz looks at Gateway Circle as "an economic boost to revive the corridor. There are interesting building sites abutting the circle and nearby the circle that should attract development," he says.
West Street has always been one of Annapolis' busiest connections to the outside world. During earlier days, the road was the only way for landlubbers to make their way into the city of sails. By the late 1800s, the street had a rail depot along B&O Railroad's Bay Ridge branch that ran through present-day Amos Garrett Boulevard.
Behind the facade of small businesses and office buildings that have sprouted up since is a traditionally black community. The neighborhood has been tagged as such throughout much of Annapolis' history and continues as an enclave of close neighbors.
Modern-day West Street is a commercialized corridor, home to small strip malls on the outskirts of town and historically housed private ventures closer in to Church Circle. Not surprisingly, commerce along West Street was whacked sharply with the advent of shopping malls and suburbanization following World War II. Only in recent years, with the '90s' boom, has West Street started into recovery.
Even before the renewal, West Street locals and merchants were getting new neighbors. The recent renovation of the Bacon Building, the current construction of a 40,000 square foot office building by developer Phil Dunn - both along the innermost half of the inner corridor - and a permit application for a new hotel near the old Goodwill store have city officials hopeful that the rest of inner West Street will experience similar fortunes.
Making the Grade
Annapolis' city planners are also targeting a major trouble spot in the street grid.
"We rate our roads and intersections on a scale much like a grade school system: A through F," explains Joe Baker, city engineer. "This intersection was an F, especially during am and pm peaks."
West Street's intersections with Taylor Avenue and Spa Road - where north-south traffic enters the fray with traffic moving east-west - has long been an area targeted for improvements because of a heavy traffic overload. Inadequate traffic controls made for the large backups and dangerous driving that so many Annapolis commuters know so well.
"I'd considered adding lanes to each of the legs of the intersection to handle the traffic," says Baker. "But the circle was chosen because it both solved the traffic problem and has the potential for economic redevelopment."
Adds Susan Zellers, economic development director, "It also fits in very well with the rest of the city."
Rather than halt traffic and cause backups, traffic circles are designed to let traffic flow more smoothly through the streets as well as to improve safety by forcing motorists to slow down while passing through. For these reasons, roundabouts have become favorite tools of street planners in Maryland. Besides, the circle fits in like a round peg with Annapolis' grand old State and Church circles.
Another problem to be solved is the antiquated infrastructure underneath West Street. "Right now we're replacing water mains that were put in during the Civil War," says Raymond Nicholson, senior superintendent with Cherry Hill Construction. In the interest of public health and safety, new mains are being dropped in to replace the relics.
Progress with the updates so far is going strong. Soon the crews will be finished with the first phase - laying infrastructure at the circle - and will soon move on to phase two, getting the circle ready to move traffic.
Still, Gateway Circle has been a long time coming.
Introducing: Gateway Circle
Gateway Circle, an elliptical traffic roundabout at the confluence of West Street, Spa Road and Taylor Avenue, fits in an area on the edge. It serves, literally, as the gateway from the newer sprawl of Annapolis to its historical downtown.
Designers from Hurst Rosche Engineers, Inc. of Cockeysville have included landscaped traffic islands at each of the four entry points to the circle. Brick paved walkways surround the circle, with cemented crosswalks marking the traffic entry points. Shrubs, trees and light fixtures add splashes of color. A small access road starting where Spa Road touches the circle passes by homes and businesses on the inbound side, separated from the circle by a long traffic island. New curbing extends part way down each of the feed streets.
Surrounding the circle is a cluster of businesses, homes and the Annapolis National Cemetery, where Declaration of Independence signer Samuel Adams is buried among Revolutionary and Civil War soldiers, many of the latter African Americans. Jim's Corner, that landmark diner, sits at the eastern entry to the circle. Admiral Cleaners is at the stopping point of Taylor Avenue improvements, sitting on the northbound side of the road directly across from the cemetery. A cluster of homes line what will be the access road, and Arundel Rug Cleaners sits near where the access road meets West Street. Further inward, at West and Amos Garret, is the G&M Imports car dealership; directly across, where the Annapolis Mitsubishi dealership once was, is the year-old That Garage.
Even as storefronts are dusted over with the by-products of construction work, merchants have their eye on the future. The potential for a revival of the area has many West Street denizens excited.
"I'm anxious to see it finished. I've seen the plans and it looks like it'll really beautify the area," says Paul Rittenhouse, assistant manager of Arundel Rug Cleaners.
And planners promise it will. "It will have a Main Street kind of look once it's finished," described Wayne Davis, project manager of construction for Hurst-Rosche Engineers, Inc. "It's not exactly the same, but it involves many of the same elements."
Coping With Construction
"I'll be glad when it's done," said everybody and their grandmother.
Every person interviewed, whether slightly exasperated or "tickled pink" with optimism, has echoed that anxious refrain. But for now they must the wait and endure construction's unavoidable inconveniences.
"The problem we have is keeping our cars clean," said John Broderick, sales manager of car dealership G&M Imports.
Dariel Lamar, a resident near the planned access road, shares the problem. "Every week or two I have to hose down my house and cars to get the dust off," he says.
As construction drags on, the City of Annapolis and Cherry Hill Construction have the task of easing the load put on West Street's businesses and residents, coordinating the efforts of several utilities companies and uprooting outdated infrastructure while keeping the traffic flowing.
"They're taking it pretty well," says Nicholson of the locals. "Bill at Jim's Corner down here, he's tickled pink."
But, of course, nothing's perfect. "Some drivers just shoot right through that intersection," says Lamar of the temporary three-way stop intersection of West Street, Spa Road and Taylor Avenue in front of his house. "It's dangerous; a lot of people just don't want to stop."
"When they first started, the right hand didn't know what the left was doing," said "Jock" Hopkins of Admiral Cleaners, "and that made for a real mess. But now it seems they've got it together."
Others have had to pull it together as well.
"Delivery truck drivers have a hard time with the traffic mess," said Paul Rittenhouse, assistant manager of Arundel Rug Cleaners, a month ago. "They come in here fuming." By now, though, drivers have adjusted to the patterns and have calmed down, according to manager Steve Duckett.
The cause of all the frustrated and impatient drivers is the gnarl created by rerouting West Street traffic through Spa Road, making for messy rush hour roads.
"What we find is that our customers will drive by when traffic is all backed up, and rather than mess with coming in they'll put it off until next week," says Hopkins.
Other businesses along the corridor can't complain, though. "Our business has actually increased," said Rittenhouse of Arundel Rug, "though we do get a few complaints about the traffic from our customers."
Hopkins notes, too, that he's seen worse. "Back when they closed Spa Bridge for repairs, they detoured all the traffic from Rowe Boulevard through Taylor Avenue to get to Eastport," he recalls. "Oddly enough, we lost more business to that than we are to this."
Nor is the traffic tangle constant. "It varies, week to week, depending on how they're messing with traffic," adds Hopkins.
G&M Imports, a used car dealer, has seen a welcome improvement on its bottom line. "We have better sales for July and August this year, with all the construction, than we did last year," says John Broderick, sales manager. Apparently, the stopped commuters in front of the lot take notice of the inventory.
Pulling in steady business, Jim's corner gets by with a little help from their regulars and construction crews. "The food's okay if you can just get in here," joked regular Don Patterson as he skimmed the paper and finished off a late lunch.
Ultimately, the city of Annapolis hopes, West Street will see an economic revival as new investment takes root in the revised streetscape amid thriving older businesses.
"You sort of hope they're right," says Hopkins.
Main Meets West
Main Street is the touchstone against which West Street's renewal is measured.
During 1995, Main Street went under the knife as Annapolis' first major urban renewal project in recent history. After roughly one year of disruptive construction, it emerged as a whole new avenue; brick paved streets and sidewalks accented with marbled granite curbing and crosswalks. Soon after the street was complete, Main's merchants had the delight of welcoming even more pedestrians along the already touristy corridor.
It has since emerged as a revitalized center of downtown culture and tourist havens, attracting new merchants to the prime property and prompting property owners to spiff up their facades.
Success along Main Street has caused more than a few double takes. "It doesn't even look like the same street," beamed one visitor, there for the first time since 1993.
Now West is mimicking Main.
Though independent and distinct projects, there is a sharing of ideas. As with Main Street, West Street is replacing its old and decaying infrastructure and putting its power and phone lines out of sight below the street. As with Main Street, West Street is putting in new lights, benches and trees. Finally, West Street is following Main Street's lead by putting in a new traffic circle and fixing up sidewalks.
Will businesses spruce up to match the touched up streetscape? "I suspect that will come," said Urban design planner Geratz, "but I think a lot are going to hold off until the whole thing's done."
"We're going to paint our building and touch it up a bit, after they've finished of course," says Broderick. G&M Imports' light blue '60s'-styled building that houses the dealership office and garage stands out from the scenery, boasting a curved and forward-sloping facade with an angular sign protruding from out of the structure.
With this and other nearby buildings boasting far-from-Colonial designs and larger proportions, West Street most certainly will not be a carbon copy of the elder Main Street. What it does share is an eagerness by its residents and merchants to welcome a new and improved version of the street as it comes.
Updating West Street's infrastructure Raymond Nicholson, at left, of Cherry Hill Construction has discovered pipes dating to the Civil War.
West Street merchants and residents near the circle can breathe a collective sigh of relief come December of '99.
By then, Gateway Circle will be complete. "It should be an anchor for new development in the area; like a department store attracting tenants to Annapolis Mall," says Geratz.
But those on the inner stretch, from Amos Garrett Boulevard to Church Circle, will get their turn soon after.
While not funded yet, the second project is in the budget and is expected to go forward. "The second should follow directly after the circle," says economic development director Zellers. This next renewal involves installing new water, gas, sewer and storm mains, burying overhead lines and touching up the streetscape between Amos Garrett Boulevard and Church Circle.
No estimates are out for this as of yet; as a matter of fact, preliminary plans aren't even drawn up. But merchants and neighbors along West Street can expect to enjoy the company of construction workers for a good while longer.
"We don't feel that they're customers, we feel that they're family," says Bill Alexopulos of Jim's Corner's many loyal patrons.
And like family, regulars come in through the back door, cut through the kitchen, pour their own coffee and eat up all the food.
Jim's Corner has been an Annapolitan landmark since 1922. Though it marks different land now - it shifted to its present spot from the corner it occupied at West Street and Spa Road sometime around 1936 - it still remains very much a part of the culture.
A small, box-shaped diner affixed to the front of a house, Jim's Corner is a modest and popular eatery along West Street's inner corridor. Liz and Bill Alexopulos own and run the diner, passed down to their hands from her father.
Inside, a counter runs along the west and north walls. Stools line the counter and, when not serving as a roost for the lunch-time crush, host a sprawl of shuffled newspapers. Tables and booths fill the rest of the small space.
The walls are covered with pictures and memoirs. Chris, the Alexopuloses' grandson who helps out occasionally, has had pictures taken with a total of eight astronauts. These photos hang proudly alongside photos of the diner's early days, accented by a few mementos from the days of yore.
As the sign out front says, this is the headquarters of the 912 Squadron, an unofficial crew of pilots who make a habit of refueling here. "They come in at 9:12 for breakfast; that's where they get their name from," says Liz Alexopulos. Not a conventional club, the squad members tend to touch down whenever. "Sometimes we get 12 of them in here at once, sometimes none. It's a very casual group."
A casual group for a casual diner. Jim's is the type of place where regulars commonly refill their own drinks and top off their own coffee.
As if to prove the point, two of Annapolis' finest came through the back door one recent day, grabbing a booth and joking with Liz as Bill prepared for the impending lunch rush. One got up and went for the fridge.
"Where's the chili dogs?" he said, peeking inside.
"I had to throw them out," said Bill, cleaning the grill.
The officer returned to his table with good-humored disappointment and perused the familiar menu, falling back on a favorite, a steak and cheese sub, without so much as a glance at the list.
The scene replays itself day after day as regulars - a good 90 percent of business, according to Bill - flow through the diner's doors.
"I stray around every now and then, but I always come back," says Don Patterson, a regular for more than five years.
Lately, getting back to Jim's has gotten trickier. Gateway Circle construction has taken center stage in front of the popular diner, eradicating street parking and forcing hungry potential patrons to detour to the tiny parking lot behind the diner.
From West Street, Jim's Corner peeks from behind orange fencing, a few pipes, and usually a back hoe or truck of some sort. Despite being tucked away from the street by construction, Jim's Corner manages to keep a steady business.
Part of that stems from the city's help. "Everybody's been absolutely wonderful. The construction company, the city, everybody," said Bill Alexopulos.
To soften the blow to the bottom line, the city of Annapolis put up signs directing drivers to a gravel driveway that was put in, leading to a small lot behind Jim's.
For their part, the construction company dropped off hardhats for Liz, Bill and Chris so they can come outside and watch. Aside from hardhats, the company's crews also supply to Jim's Corner a sizable group of hungry construction workers.
"It's great to see they're finally fixing the area up," says Bill, looking out the window at the construction outside. "It's going to be absolutely beautiful when they've finished."
It most certainly will, planners promise. But in the meantime, regulars will keep taking the long way around and the Alexopuloses will enjoy watching West Street metamorphasize.
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VolumeVI Number 35
September 3-9, 1998
New Bay Times
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