CAMBRIDGE — They call it “the Big Dig of Huron Village.”
For months, residents and business owners in Cambridge have endured a no-holds-barred construction project that has hampered travel through West Cambridge, shutting roads to traffic, gutting sidewalks, and making the once-challenging task of finding parking nearly impossible.
“It’s an obstacle course of construction equipment,” said, Jan Devereux, president of the Fresh Pond Residents Alliance and a longtime resident in the epicenter of the road work.
In a city often pigeonholed as the realm of cyclists and the too-cool-for-cars crowd, the construction has demonstrated that even one of the region’s least car-dependent cities is not immune to the dramatic repercussions of tearing up the roads, and with them, coveted parking spots.
“It’s not like Harvard Square; people don’t walk everywhere here,” said Marc Najarian, one of the co-owners of Fresh Pond Market on Huron Avenue. “We don’t have any big parking lots. This really affects us small businesses.”
The construction is the result of a federal court-ordered effort that started in 1985 to provide new drainage and sewage systems to reduce waste water dumped into Boston Harbor. Cambridge must finish the work by the deadline set by the court, fall 2015. And much of the construction could not begin until this year, after the completion of a stormwater wetland project in Alewife that will help filter sewer water and prevent flooding in surrounding neighborhoods.
The tight timeline of the work means that construction must proceed simultaneously in different parts of the neighborhood. On many weekdays, work crews surrounded by orange cones gather in various intersections, impeding traffic. Side streets are completely blocked to through-traffic. The pavement on Huron Avenue is now rough and pocked, making it impossible to drive faster than a crawl. Temporary no-parking signs are posted on telephone poles up and down the major thoroughfare. Giant concrete columns, piles of steel pipes, industrial dumpsters, and heavy construction machinery rest against the curbs.
The yellow backhoes now parked in on-street parking spaces also “contribute to the siege mentality,” Devereux said.
The gutted sidewalks and uneven roads are just as problematic for walkers and cyclists.
“The sidewalk’s been torn up and dirty for well over a month,” Devereaux said. “It doesn’t exactly make walking fun, and biking doesn’t feel any safer.”
Though the sewer work is scheduled to be completed by 2015, sidewalk revamping and landscaping work will continue into 2016.
Business owners in Huron Village say they had more than a year’s warning on the expected scale and length of the project. Still, the effects on business have been dramatic. For Hi-Rise Bread Company on Concord Avenue, customers have a rule of thumb, owner René Becker said: They circle the block in their cars three times, and if they can’t find a parking spot by the third round, they move on to another cafe. Now, Becker said, getting around the block has become so difficult that it only takes one round before customers go elsewhere.
“There’s no question, it’s been tough on everybody,” said Becker, who has owned Hi-Rise for 18 years.
Keri Resendes, manager at Marimekko retail shop on Huron Avenue, said her business has experienced similar dismaying reports from would-be shoppers.
“We got a phone call from a customer, ‘We weren’t able to find a place to park, so we didn’t come,’ ” Resendes recalled. She grimaced. “Not good.”
Foot traffic in the store, she said, is down 20 to 30 percent, though that has been made up for in higher sales per customer.
Becker said Hi-Rise’s business has been knocked down 15 percent. Najarian estimated that Fresh Pond Market has incurred a 20 percent decrease in sales since construction started last spring.
Najarian, whose family has owned Fresh Pond Market for 92 years, said he and other longtime business owners in the neighborhood are grateful for loyal customers who remain undeterred by parking challenges.
“We’ve been here a long time,” Najarian said. “We survived the Great Depression, we survived world wars. We’ll survive this, too.”
While much of the construction centers on sewer and drainage improvements, the project is also allowing NStar to install new underground gas lines, a big perk for a neighborhood that has often experienced problems with power outages and gas leaks.
Additionally, the city has promised residents that the construction will conclude with new sidewalks, narrowed car lanes to encourage slower driving, and new bike lanes.
And residents are trying to temper their gripes about the inconvenience of it all with more altruistic platitudes on the need for long-term improvements.
“No one likes it,” Becker said. “But all the business people and residents recognize that these are really important changes. We desperately need an upgrade in infrastructure.”
Katherine Watkins, city engineer for the Department of Public Works, said Cambridge has tried to help residents and business owners find ways to counteract the effects of impeded travel.
“We fully understand the impacts this has,” Watkins said. “It can be very frustrating to people, but it is something we’re working really hard on, trying to mitigate construction where we can.”
To that end, the city and neighborhood organizations have posted pleading signs. “Yes, We’re Open: Please Help Us Support The Area Businesses During Construction,” reads one. Another says, “Support your local business & ask about parking during construction.”
And, in a turn of parking benevolence unusual for Cambridge, parking enforcement officers have been lax about doling out tickets, according to some business owners. The city has also allowed nonresidents to park in resident parking spaces for two-hour periods.
“You know in Cambridge they are just —” Becker paused, “— vigilant, to put it nicely, about resident parking. So the fact that they have backed off is a big deal.”
As Becker stood outside his Hi-Rise bakery last weekend, a customer exited, then tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention. Though the block of Concord Avenue had been blocked to car traffic, she said, the police officer guarding the orange cones had allowed her to drive in and park in an off-limits spot when she said she was headed to Hi-Rise to pick up some food.
Without the dispensation from the police officer, who knows whether she would have been able to find parking?
“You should give him a free cookie,” the woman advised, before walking back to her car.Martine Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.