No dirty joke: Stanwix businesses confront grime from North Shore Connector project

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If it's not the noise, it's the dirt and the mud. If it's not the muck, it's the vibration, sometimes shaking a building so hard that it leaves customers clutching their chairs.

For property owners and businesses on Stanwix Street near Fort Duquesne Boulevard, the Port Authority's North Shore Connector project has been anything but a boon.

Since July, they have had to contend with extreme dirt and grime caused by the construction, vibration and noise from the heavy equipment deployed at the site, and lost business. Some wonder whether they will outlast the project.

"We've always done well until this started," said Howard Kernats, owner of Hair Fashions By Howard on Stanwix. "It just killed my business. I'm down 60 percent."

For Sol Gross, it's not so much the disruption that has been the issue as it has been the dirt and mud created by the construction, clogging filters, coating windows, and soiling carpets and floors.

Mr. Gross, who is renovating 84 apartments in the building he owns at 625 Stanwix, said he has complained repeatedly about the filth generated by the work -- right up to Mayor Luke Ravenstahl -- but that his pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

"We're not against the project," he said. "We're against their housekeeping. They have no right to come into our community and make a mud hole out of it."

The constant grime has the post office branch on the building's ground floor changing its furnace filters every five weeks instead of every three months, as would normally be the case. After one month of use, the filters go from white to gray and are clogged with debris.

"The furnace filters are disgusting. The dust is terrible," said Donna Madeja, a post office employee.

The post office also has been bringing in cleaners every other day to tidy up. "They can't keep up with this dirt," Ms. Madeja said.

Mr. Gross said he has had to spend money to unclog pipes in a sophisticated cooling system he has in his building. He also is spending $1,000 a quarter for chemical treatments for the system.

Despite many complaints, he said neither the Port Authority nor its contractors have done anything to mitigate the problems.

He believes they have a responsibility to keep the grime under control. He said the dust he complained about during the summer turned to mud in the fall and was tracked into stores and offices in his building.

"There's no excuse for that filth. All they had to do is sweep and shovel it and put it into a box," he said. "They have no regard for the people living here. If it was just a minor thing, I wouldn't care. But this is a major, major mud place."

The dirt and mud also have had an impact on the convenience store that operates on the ground floor of Mr. Gross' building.

"It's not very appealing when you're trying to serve food and coffee," one employee said.

The Port Authority said it has been taking the complaints from businesses and property owners seriously. Spokesman Dave Whipkey said contractors have been doing what they can to keep the area clean.

"We are doing the best we can. We just met with the contractor today. He is aware [of the situation]. They're going to try to keep that as clean as possible," he said.

"Basically our contractor is aware that it is a messy deal over there. It is a messy job. He is taking care to clean up the area, hose it down after the day's job is done."

However, Mr. Whipkey added, there was only so much that can be done to control grime at a major construction site where crews are relocating utilities and doing tunnel boring work relating to the North Shore Connector project.

"It's a major construction project. Any time you get something like this, it's going to be a mess. But we are trying to keep it as clean as possible," he said.

Mr. Whipkey said the Port Authority also has tried to alert people that businesses along the stretch of Stanwix where construction is occurring are open by advertising that on its Web site.

"We have taken great strides to make sure the public knows, hey, these places are open. We are letting people know you can get in there," he said.

But Mr. Kernats said he has gotten little or no cooperation from the Port Authority. He quoted one official as telling him the authority was "not in the habit of bailing out businesses that we may or may not have inconvenienced through our construction."

"I got no help from any outside source ... My business has continued to fall apart. We had the worst Christmas here that you can ever imagine," he said.

At Max & Erma's restaurant on Stanwix Street, the giant hamburger above the entrance is coated with dust and business is down 15 to 20 percent since the subway construction started.

The restaurant has posted its own banners at strategic spots to alert people that it is open. Manager Kristen Troha said lunchtime business has been good, but the restaurant doesn't get nearly the evening traffic it once did from shows in the nearby Cultural District.

"People think we're closed. They don't think the sidewalk is open," she said.

Dirt also has been a problem for the restaurant, with the staff dusting three or four times a day to keep things clean.

"Our guests haven't said much, but in my opinion, it's become an eyesore," she said of the muck created by the construction.

If there's any good news, it is that the Port Authority, which originally hoped to have Stanwix reopened in December, now expects that to occur by mid-February.

Mr. Kernats said that day can't come soon enough.

Asked how long he can survive, he replied, "That depends on how long this debacle goes on out there. If it's another six months, I don't know. If they're out of here in a few weeks, maybe."

Mark Belko can be reached at or 412-263-1262.


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