Old City needs 2 months of repairs; the open streets experiment isn’t going well

A water main break in Old City has shut down 3rd and Arch Streets and all of 3rd Street to Market Street. Confused motorists were forced to turn around on one-way streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

A water main break in Old City has shut down 3rd and Arch Streets and all of 3rd Street to Market Street. Confused motorists were forced to turn around on one-way streets. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

It’s normal for busted water mains to stop the flow of water. A main break in Old City, however, is slowing the flow of cash for small business owners.

A roughly 200-year-old, cast-iron water main at the intersection of Third and Arch streets broke last Tuesday. First, it caused basements to flood, then road closures.

A water main break in Old City has shut down 3rd and Arch Streets and all of 3rd Street to Market Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The main break shut down Third Street between Market and Race, and Arch Street between Second and Fourth. Initially, officials hoped the busy streets, popular with tourists, would reopen within thirty days. But additional utility demands are now requiring the streets stay closed an extra month.

“It’s about two months before everything will be done,” said John DiGiulio, a spokesperson for Philadelphia Water Department.

DiGiulio calls it an “all-hands-on-deck situation.”

Local businesses call it a catastrophe.

A water main break in Old City has shut down 3rd and Arch Streets and all of 3rd Street to Market Street. Business were open and foot traffic still heavy on 3rd Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Two months is an eternity for small businesses that rely on foot traffic and street parking to attract customers. Already, businesses report significant dips in revenue since the rupture. Shop owners say customers think they are closed because of the repairs.

Kimberly Davis owns a pet store on Third between Market and Arch called BONeJOUR. She said revenue has dropped by at least half since the break. She says she understands the city has to fix the main, but “we are in survival mode.”

Old City has had a rough go with road closures in recent years. The city’s water department shut down 5th Street between Walnut and Chestnut last spring to prevent a possible road collapse. A broken pipe had jeopardized the foundation of the street. In 2018, the intersection at Chestnut and Second streets was shut down for more than ten weeks after a four-alarm blaze destroyed a historic building and caused serious damage to its neighbors. And in 2012, a drawn-out construction project on Third between Market and Chestnut negatively impacted businesses.

Shafi Gaffar, who owns Makhani, an Indian restaurant near Third and Market, says the current road closure has stopped people from coming in for a meal.

“My dinner business is down by 60, 70 percent,” he said.

A water main break in Old City has shut down 3rd and Arch Streets and all of 3rd Street to Market Street. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Aristotle Katourtsidis runs OCP Grill, a restaurant at Third and Arch. His family has run the business for more than three decades. The two-month road closure could damage some businesses to the point of closure, he fears.

“It’s very alarming,” Katourtsidis said. “People need to support us because we’re in trouble.”

Old City District is working to address some of the panic with a campaign using social media and signage to inform the public that the area is still open for business. Job Itzkowitz, the business improvement district’s executive director, even mentioned taking advantage of the car-less road for events, a la open streets. But construction equipment and local through traffic have made even that tough.

“The best we can do right now is market and promote and keep Old City top of mind and ask people to support local, independently-owned businesses,” said Itzkowitz.

Karen Riggs, owner of Tribal Home gallery on Third, may be ahead of the curve. Riggs said she has reached out directly to customers to let them know she is still open. So far, she couldn’t tell if foot traffic decreased.

Still, she worries what the next 60 days will bring.

“You get your inconveniences that you have no control over,” Riggs said. Hopefully, “this doesn’t last too long. The hard part is not knowing.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal