When Chestnut Street in Old City was finally reopened, Capofitto owner Stephanie Reitano rejoiced. Three months of sidewalk closures after the devastating February fire had caused a dramatic dip in revenue at the Neapolitan pizzeria — and she was eager to finally be welcoming customers again.
“I’m dancing in the street!” Reitano said at the time.
Not so fast, the Philly construction gods seemed to answer.
On May 21, less than three weeks after the street in front of the restaurant was reopened to traffic, a new crew showed up and began ripping it up again. Workers parked backhoes and vehicles outside the pizzeria’s doors, started using the adjacent corner as storage for big piles of trash bags, and put up new signs directing pedestrians away from the sidewalk leading to Capofitto’s front doors.
“My general manager sat outside yesterday,” Reitano said last week, “and just filmed people walking toward us and then walking away.”
According to the Philadelphia Streets Dept., the new street work is a PECO infrastructure project that’s unrelated to the fire. It’s happening now, a spokesperson said, because the fire caused the schedule to be delayed.
But for Capofitto, the timing couldn’t be worse. More detrimental than any of the visual deterrents, Reitano said, is the noise from the jackhammering — which has been happening nightly at around 7 p.m., aka prime dining hours. Meaning people who do brave the “Sidewalk Closed” signs and trash bags to dine at Capofitto are now treated to an evening of harsh, abrasive sound.
“It is deafening,” Reitano said, noting that the sound not only fills the cafe counter out front, but also penetrates the doors leading to the dining room at back. She has comped countless meals for unhappy customers. “You can’t hear yourself.”
Business at the restaurant, which was quickly picking up over the first half of the month, has plummeted again. Sales are down 26 percent versus last year, per Reitano, and it’s causing an existential crisis.
“Something has to give,” she said, adding that she and biz partner/husband John Reitano have become fearful the disruption could cause their entire Capogiro gelato operation to fold.
“Summer is when we make money!” Reitano said, explaining the business model behind the four gelaterias and sister restaurant. “It tides me over through the winter. But the restaurant is now losing money. I’m having to take money from Capogiro to pay the bills.”
When the new PECO work began, Reitano penned an email to city officials to find out what the deal was. Could the work be done during daytime hours instead, she respectfully pleaded. (Capofitto serves lunch, but 75 percent of sales occur at night.) Or perhaps the asphalt jackhammering could be postponed until after dinnertime was over?
Easier thought than done. Per the Streets Dept., standard policy is that work like this in Center City from Walnut to Spring Garden and river to river occurs during the evenings — “to minimize impacts to all modes of traffic.” Well, Reitano noted in response, Old City has become known for nightlife, so that standard doesn’t necessarily make sense. (Per the Old City District, the most cars are in the area between 5 and 6 p.m.)
Reitano’s email became a growing chain of back-and-forth, winding its way through various city staffer inboxes.
After District 1 Councilman Mark Squilla and leaders at the Old City District voiced support for finding some kind of solution in the email chain, the Streets Dept.’s Right of Way Unit contacted PECO, SEPTA and the PPD to ask them to consider switching to daytime hours, said spokesperson Keisha McCarty-Skelton.
However, McCarty-Skelton told Billy Penn, the jackhammering was originally slated to be complete next week, and a shift to daytime hours would take at least a week due to union rules. It would also “prolong the duration of the work, as the current permit allows for a 10-hour work window and the daytime hours will be limited to 6 hours.”
Reitano suggested the idea that nighttime workers actually put in 10 hours was somewhat laughable.
“They run diesel trucks until 10 p.m. right in front of our restaurant,” she said, “and then they sit in their cabs and smoke. We have photos.”
In the meantime, Reitano said, she was told workers had been asked to store their trash bags away from the restaurant, and to park vehicles in front of the fire-destroyed buildings next door instead of the working restaurant. That hasn’t happened either.
“So much for promising to not leave trash and move their equipment,” she wrote on Twitter this week. “Nothing says success like @PhiladelphiaGov tearing up the street for 4 straight years. What a time to own a business in Philly.”