The $6 million overhaul of Dedham Square was money well spent, most downtown merchants say, but a few are finding that some of the changes have hurt more than they helped.
Paradise Café owner Ali Koushan said his business has increased 30 percent since the construction ended in November, and that the square is safer than ever.
“It is fantastic,” he said in an interview Thursday.
But Steve Carlson, owner of Mocha Java coffee shop, said his business took a dive when a new traffic pattern slowed vehicles and pedestrians at his intersection, and some potential customers decided they don’t want to wait.
“People are voting with their feet and saying it is not working,” Carlson said at a selectmen’s meeting this month.
Mimi’s News, a small convenience store next to Mocha Java, has also seen a decline, manager Sonny Patel said in an interview Thursday.
“Business has gone down; no question about that,” Patel said. “It was hurt bad when they were doing construction. It’s better than then, but not as good as before.”
During work on the project in 2012 and 2013, merchants and residents alike endured noise, traffic detours, and other disruptions. When work was completed, the square emerged with brick-lined crosswalks, new plantings, safer traffic patterns, and more parking.
Parking in particular helped Salon 561, said manicurist Cristina Petrillo. In a last-minute change, selectmen made parking at the nearby Keystone parking lot free for everyone. Now, business at the salon is back to normal, if not busier than before the project began, she said.
“The traffic doesn’t bother us in the square; our people park in the lot and cross over,” Petrillo said Thursday. “We’re not a five-minute stop in and get coffee type thing.”
That, however, is a perfect description of Carlson’s business. He said that almost immediately after the additional traffic light and pedestrian crossing lights went into effect late last summer, business dropped off.
“August is usually our slow month, but by the time November and December came along, I was begging for my August numbers,” Carlson said.
Selectmen heard these kinds of criticisms during an update from consultant Greg Lucas, a project manager for the BETA Group. He gave selectmen a presentation on traffic flow in the square since completion of the project.
The two main intersections revamped are at High Street and Eastern Avenue, where Mocha Java is located, and High and Washington streets, where the Dedham Police station sits.
The Eastern Avenue intersection had new traffic lights installed, but they were used as flashing lights until August, when they became full-fledged traffic lights.
Lucas said that BETA Group took traffic counts at the relevant intersections on Sept. 18, and compared the findings to data from 2009. He said that traffic at both intersections improved from 2009 to last year.
“Eastern Avenue was unsignalized previously and had a level of service of F,” Lucas said. “That was because coming out of Eastern, you didn’t have acceptable gaps in traffic to turn.”
But from Carlson’s point of view, going from a flashing red to a full-service stop light chased people away.
“Whatever it was before, as dysfunctional as it felt, it worked. People came in,” Carlson said. “Whatever it is now, it’s going to be 20 percent safer because there are 20 percent less people out there.”
Lucas’s main concern was the nearby intersection of High, Court, and Ames streets by the Norfolk Superior Court. Traffic at that intersection is at a failing level due to stalled traffic, according to Lucas.
Lucas suggested several ways to alleviate the problem, the most invasive being widening the intersection by taking land from the Dedham Community House.
That would cost nearly $500,000, he said.
That didn’t sit well with Selectman Paul Reynolds, who co-owns Blue Bunny Books and Toys in Dedham Square.
He lamented that Lucas’s report focused so much on cars, when the project also had the goal of bringing more pedestrians to the square.
“The consensus on the street is that something’s not right,” Reynolds said. “It pains me to think we spent so much money on this project and then the same people who advised us on the project are telling us, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll just spend a half a million more and cut a chunk of land out of your Community House.’ ”
Reynolds also said the square project overall has been a boon to the downtown, but that the town is working through the “final 10 percent” of making sure the improvement project is the best it can be.
Selectmen wanted to work further with the town’s engineering department and BETA to address business and other issues.
Board chairman Michael Butler recommended implementing the cheapest of the options Lucas presented for improving the intersection of Court, Ames and High streets — eliminating some parking spaces in front of the Registry of Deeds to expand traffic capacity.
Butler and other selectmen also asked BETA to conduct more traffic counts and take into account pedestrian traffic before its next presentation.
“You can sense there is some urgency around this,” Butler said to Dedham’s director of engineering, Jason Mammone. “Use all the tools at your disposal.”