BRADENTON -- The Bradenton riverfront used to be where Ritch Stevenson would take his three-wheeled bicycle every morning for a ride, a key part of his recovery plan from a stroke.
While on his daily exercise ritual, Stevenson would encounter dozens of runners and walkers, along with several riders from the nearby Manatee Segway Tours, all enjoying the scenic river drive.
But all of that has changed since late September, when construction began on the waterfront project known as Riverwalk. The gate from Stevenson’s condominium complex is now padlocked, and a big sign warns away trespassers.
Stevenson and his fellow residents at the River Yacht and Racquet Club complex are so frustrated about their lack of access to one of the city’s prime assets that they’ve written a letter to Mayor Wayne Poston.
”We do not understand why half the riverfront has been ripped up and no work is being done on getting things finished,” wrote Howard Pasternack, president of the complex’s homeowners association.
The Dec. 18 letter also calls attention to a pile of spoil dirt, which Pasternack jokingly refers to as “Mount Manatee,” sitting just west of the condominiums. The dirt has been moved to the former Fireman’s Memorial Park from areas along the riverfront walkway that is being reworked.
“It is now overgrown with weeds and bushes and is an unsightly mess, as is the entire construction area from the Promenade to the Hospital,” writes Pasternack, who says he’s frustrated that he hasn’t received a response from Poston.
Poston says he never received the letter and would have responded to Pasternack if he had. He also says the city isn’t directly responsible for the construction zone; NDC Construction is. Nevertheless, Poston says, he supports how the project is being handled.
“There’s no way to build something without inconveniencing some people for a short period of time,” he says. “There are certain things you have to do for a construction period, and one is to provide for the safety of people.”
Stevenson, who used to manage large construction projects as a park official in a Maryland city, says he understands the importance of keeping people out of the construction zone. But he also questions why the entire Riverwalk area has to be closed to the public at once, especially during times when no apparent work is being done.
“Overall, they should be patted on the back for trying to uplift the town and make things better for everyone,” he says. “But it looks like they weren’t prepared to jump in.”
Tom Dereniwski, another River Yacht resident, calls the project “laughable.”
“They could have staged it,” says Dereniwski. “Or they could have let people know, ‘This is why we’re doing what we’re doing.’ The net result will be very positive, no question. But in the interim, some communication is lacking.”
Other River Yacht residents said they feel “cooped in” by the surrounding construction.
But the dissatisfaction and sense of poor communication extends beyond River Yacht. Jim and Louetta Phillips, Ellenton residents who had brought their daughter Diane Szallay to enjoy the riverfront Thursday morning, say they had no idea the area would be torn up.
“It’s a big disappointment,” Louetta Phillips said. “To close it all off is really bad news for us. Why put all this money into something that was already nice?”
Officials in charge of the Riverwalk project say they understand residents’ frustration. They also defend the manner in which the project is being handled.
Ron Allen, president of NDC Construction, says it’s only been during the week-and-a-half holiday break that no work has been done. He also says cost makes it impossible to do the Riverwalk project in stages.
“If we had unlimited funds, we could do it piece by piece,” Allen says. “But we don’t. And it costs less to do a 400-foot section of something all at once than to do 100 feet from start to finish, and then another 100 feet from start to finish.
“Not to mention, we’d also prolong the period that the total park cannot be used if we did it section by section.”
Plans call for the entire project to be completed by June. In addition to a reworked riverfront walkway, the Riverwalk project includes several nature parks, an expanded amphitheater, shaded picnic areas, several family play areas, improved fishing spots, a skateboard park, public art displays and sand volleyball courts.
Allen and Dave Gustafson, head of the Downtown Development Authority that is spearheading the Riverwalk project, plan to meet with the River Yacht homeowners within the next month to address their concerns and say they will do the same with any other concerned residents.
“If I was living right there, I’d be frustrated, too,” Gustafson said. “Construction is never pretty. It’s ugly. You’re tearing things up. But in the long run, what an amazing thing they have to anticipate. They’ll see that this is an eye drop in the great scheme of things.”
Christine Hawes, Herald writer, can be reached at 941-745-7081.