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Construction continues at the intersection of Marina Bay Parkway and Meeker Avenue, Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013, in Richmond, Calif. Merchants at the shopping center that adjoins the construction area -- where workers are building a $30 million underpass linking the city with its shoreline district -- has hampered customer traffic to their stores, and is leaving some in dire financial straits. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

RICHMOND -- A $30 million underpass linking the city with its growing shoreline district was billed as key to pumping life into the area and bypassing long cargo trains.

But area merchants say the yearlong project has dampened business so drastically, they may not be around to reap the benefits.

"It's like a ghost town in here at lunchtime since the construction started," said Menbere Aklilu, owner of Salute E Vita Ristorante, the city's most renowned waterfront restaurant. "The detours and the confusing signs, it is terrible for business."

Revenues have plunged since construction halted traffic through Marina Bay Parkway in September, when crews began excavation work to pave the way for the Officer Bradley A. Moody Memorial Underpass, a mostly state-funded project named after a Richmond police veteran who was killed in an on-duty car wreck near the site in 2007. While the road is closed, commuters must detour via Marina Way South to get to the waterfront, a slow-moving roundabout with several turns that is poorly lit at night, business owners complain.

Aklilu said business at her upscale Italian eatery is down 27 percent since the closure, and that meager tips prompted two of her servers to quit.

"I am concerned, of course, about my other 28 employees and their families, too," she said.

Salute's isn't alone.

Business is down almost 20 percent at Cafe Pascal, a coffee and sandwich shop with live music and a bohemian flair, according to sales figures provided by the shop's owner.

Altogether, eight Marina Bay businesses have reported sales losses because of the road closure and are looking to the city for help, according to Richmond officials.

"(Falling business) was something we knew could be a possibility but didn't know how much and to what degree," said Chad Smalley, project manager for the successor agency to the Richmond Community Redevelopment Agency.

Smalley said business owners first reported losses days after the road closure began Sept. 3. Smalley and other city staff visited all eight businesses earlier this month to speak with their owners.

"We're trying to get a handle on what the range of problems are and come up with a possible comprehensive solution," Smalley said. "We don't have one yet, but we're working on it."

The city placed new signs at the intersection of Marina Way South and Regatta Boulevard, directing detoured traffic to Salute and a few other businesses on the other side of the closure.

But it hasn't been much help, business owners say.

"(It's) a small sign, and nobody can read it," Aklilu said.

Aklilu said she spent nearly $1,000 on her own signs, but they soon disappeared.

Meanwhile, at least one longtime business has been shuttered. Amini's by the Bay, a sandwich shop and grocery adjacent to Salute's, closed its doors in October after more than 20 years.

Robert Poe, who owns the property, said Amini's didn't close because of the construction project but that it did impact revenues.

"We decided it was time to have something different in that location," Poe said, declining to specify what business he hoped to move in.

At Salute's, employees are feeling the effects of the slowdown.

Server Haris Raftis crosses the Carquinez Bridge from Fairfield for each shift. Last week, he made $20 in tips for three days in a row, he said.

"That doesn't even cover my gas or bridge toll (for the week)," Raftis said.

Aklilu said the city needs to come up with a plan soon, or her popular restaurant may not survive. Born in Ethiopia and raised in Italy, Aklilu has built a loyal following over the years, thanks in part to her own worldly charm, her acclaimed cuisine and numerous philanthropic events, including an annual Thanksgiving event at which she serves elegant meals to hundreds of the area's homeless people.

Aklilu said the combination of construction and rising rents -- thanks in part to rebounding land values -- could be too much to overcome.

"I might not be able to last long enough to be a part of the new Marina Bay," she said.

This article was produced in collaboration with RichmondConfidential.org, a nonprofit news service based in the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726 or rrogers@bayareanewsgroup.com.