Caltrans project hits merchants already beleaguered by COVID-19

The Caltrans culvert construction site at Broadway and South Coast Highway as seen on April 13. Photo by Breeana Greenberg

By Breeana Greenberg, Special to the Independent

Not only have businesses been affected by COVID-19, but now several businesses in the 100 block of South Coast Highway have seen their foot traffic sink amid construction to replace the stormwater box culvert at Main Beach.

Alexi Bouhbot, owner of La Macaron French Pastries, said the work by Caltrans has almost destroyed her business.

“You know, they’ve blocked access to the one side of our business,” Bouhbot said. “They blocked it. All frontal view of my business I mean, all the shops on the next street are affected, of course, but we are probably the most affected because we are completely blocked in by the fences, and nobody can even see our business.”

The 100-year-old culvert runs beneath South Coast Highway, carrying stormwater away from downtown Laguna and into the Pacific Ocean. With concrete breaking down, the culvert was overdue for a replacement.

“It’s really unfortunate, because the culvert got to the point where the rebar is exposed underneath. And if we were to have a really bad storm, like the kind of storm that we had in 2010, you don’t want that culvert to break down, because we would have a much bigger problem in our downtown and on PCH than we will for just the two month construction project,” Mayor Pro Tem Sue Kempf said.

Heidi Miller, owner of Tight Assets and World Newsstand, endured damage to both of her stores in past floods.

“And one of the big reasons was the culvert got clogged and it flooded the downtown,” she said. “Of course it was a 100-year storm, completely different, but I am 100 percent in support of doing this project. I just think the timing is a bit irresponsible and disrespectful to us business owners.”

A beachwear retailer, Havaianas, permanently closed its shop in the 100 block of South Coast Highway on April 9, said Cecilia Andrade, president of OceanView Invest Corp. The closure was particularly frustrating after the store tried to keep its door open amid COVID-19.

“The Caltrans Culvert construction strongly influenced my decision to permanently close my Havaianas Sandals Laguna Beach store,” Andrade wrote in an email. “Since the construction started and the sidewalk was partially closed, the foot traffic and sales were drastically reduced. Also, the loud noise, dust, trash and cement all over our storefronts made [it] almost impossible to operate the businesses.”

Some local businesses complained about the timing of the project. Bouhbot wished the construction had begun while stores were still closed due to COVID-19.

“Businesses are opening up again as people are coming out again as the weather is warming up, you know, we’ve had a year of COVID, which most businesses barely survived. And now they’re going to put this on us for another two months, it’s just not fair,” Bouhbot said.

However, Kempf explained that the project was held off until after the rainy season as it is not ideal to complete the construction of the culvert in the rain.

“It’s before the summer months, and it’s kind of after the rainy period. So that was the best opportunity we had to do it,” Kempf said.

While generally in support of the efforts to replace the culvert, business owners are upset with the timing and their loss of sales as a result of the project.

“I have no problem with them doing their construction, but fair is fair,” Bouhbot said. “So if you’re going to block access to our business, you need to compensate our business, you need to cover our expenses you need to cover rent, you need to cover staff. But you can’t actually block us the way you’re blocking us and give us zero compensation and expect us not to close, or, you know, to try and stay open.”

City officials are trying as many things as possible to blunt the effects of the Caltrans project, Kempf said.

“The businesses, I think they’re getting worn out and they’ve been heroic in their efforts to keep going,” Kempf said. “And we’ve tried to help them with the CARES Act program … we gave some money from the City General Fund, we tried to help them. But it is going to be a challenging situation for the next six weeks.”

The project is slated to be completed at the end of May, before Labor Day. Residents can check in on the traffic through the Community Updates posted on Nixle every Thursday.

“To the extent that we can be helpful to our residents and people coming to town, I think we’re doing that,” Kempf said. “Caltrans is their own entity. They call the shots, but I think we’ve been pretty effective working with them so far on it.”

Daniel Langhorne contributed reporting to this story.

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  1. Terrible timing on all of this roadwork. They had all of last summer to work on this plus fall when we were locked down. Now that schools and businesses are reopened, it’s awful. They need to work on it at night to relieve congestion, bottom line.

  2. This lack of coordination between the city and other agencies is the responsibility of our city manager John Pietig and assistant city manager Shoreh Dupuis. This isn’t unlike so many other poorly planned projects in town that end up in controversy and major impacts to resident and visitors with traffic, gridlock and public safety concerns on the rise. 2020 should have been the year to address this flooding/transportation corridor issue if it was such a high priority since our town was basically semi-closed.

  3. To allow Caltrans to speed along their necessary culvert work, now would be a good time to practice alternatives to car driving through downtown Laguna. You don’t need a car to patronize our affected businesses.


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