By Rowena Coetsee
OAKLEY -- Construction of Oakley Plaza's two most visible tenants is now complete, but merchants at the far end of the downtown shopping center are frustrated by the way the city is handling the rest of the project.
Five retailers recently sent a letter to Oakley's City Council and city manager detailing their complaints about the work that's under way at Main Street and Vintage Parkway, saying that it's bad for business.
One of them, a bait and tackle shop, also has served the city with a tort claim -- the precursor to a lawsuit -- alleging that as the property's landlord, it has breached its contract with tenants by preventing customers from patronizing their businesses. Drivers haven't been able to use the parking lot's main entrance since it was taped off.
The claim also asserts that the city can't embark on a public works project without compensating merchants for the losses they incur in the process.
The city either can reject the claim or try to work out an agreement with Hook, Line & Sinker. If the two parties can't reach a settlement, the business then could take the city to court.
Michelle Buchholz, who runs the store with her husband, declined to comment, saying she didn't want to compromise her case.
"I've never in all my time complained to the city until now (but), "I just feel like I got kicked in the rear end," said Michael Miu, who has operated Silver River restaurant in the plaza for 21 years.
Miu and others say business has dropped off since the city began tearing up Main Street in July to make room for diagonal parking in front of Carpaccio and La Costa restaurants.
The construction is so extensive that retailers say some customers assumed all the stores were closed.
"If you were new to town and came driving down Main Street, you wouldn't know we were here," said Ron Brown, owner of Center Barber Shop.
Others have told merchants they had trouble finding a way into the center.
In narrowing Main Street to slow traffic down, crews have blocked off that entrance to the commercial center. Shoppers trying to reach the back of the plaza now must use Vintage Parkway.
But that also became a challenge last week when contractors taped off the main entrance so they could install better storm drains in the parking lot as well as electrical conduits for lighting. Crews also will be removing all the asphalt and grading the lot before repaving it.
Accustomed to using the wider entrance, merchants say customers have been overshooting the smaller one, a narrow driveway that's been built just behind Carpaccio.
Once drivers realize they can't get in, they must make a U-turn to get back to the opening.
Although the city alerted businesses to the impending closure last month, the original date it gave didn't pan out, said Michelle Buchholz, who runs Hook, Line & Sinker with her husband. They consequently were startled when they arrived for work on Jan. 29 to find the primary entrance blocked, saying the city hadn't told them it had rescheduled the action.
Miu, who says his daily receipts have plummeted by roughly 80 percent since then, would rather the city close only half the entrance at a time or finish paving the Main Street entrance before blocking Vintage Parkway traffic. He says his attempts to discuss the situation with city employees have fallen on deaf ears.
Nancy Marquez, assistant to the city manager, says the city had to close the entire entrance because a deep inlet to the storm drain system at that point is currently exposed.
City Manager Bryan Montgomery declined to comment on complaints that the city has been less than responsive to the businesses' concerns, but Marquez rebuts the claims.
"Employees have visited many times with the businesses," she wrote in an email. "I have also spoken on the phone to most of them during the project and have emailed all of them numerous times."
The city also held two town hall meetings about the project, a public works inspector is on site every day and the project manager visits almost as often, Marquez added.
Two tenants have left since the work began, most recently a costume jewelry store whose owner moved out Saturday after opening in late November.
"If I made $20 (a day), I was lucky," said Joyce Vandergrift, noting that the construction made an already sluggish sales season even worse.
Kelley Ellison closed Yogurt Island at the end of November because business was so slow that she was losing money on unused ingredients that were going bad.
Although she plans to reopen March 1, Ellison says she will have to train another set of employees if the two she had to let go are no longer available.
"It's taking them way too long," she said of the construction. "When's it going to end?"
The answer is soon, at least as the parking lot is concerned. Paving should be finished by the end of next week, and the north side of Main Street is supposed to be back to normal by the week after that, according to Marquez.
Work on the thoroughfare's south side still needs to be done, she said¿.
Marquez acknowledged that there have been delays in the project, which she said originally was supposed to be done by early February.
But rain, underground utilities that unexpectedly turned up when crews started digging, and the time it took to answer dozens of questions that the contractor had once the work began has pushed that time frame back, she said.
Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141. Follow her at Twitter.com/RowenaCoetsee.