Living with SmartFix40

Nearby homeowners and business proprietors describe what was life like in the heart of the beast

Noise, dust, the occasional blocked parking space—that's likely what everyone who lived and worked in the center of the inconvenience expected. After months of panicky press coverage and neighborhood pamphleteering leading up to the closure—a stretch of Interstate 40 that begins on the near east side and cuts right through the middle of the Fourth and Gill neighborhood—people were prepared to be moderately annoyed for a while. And for Dennis and Matt McGaha, owners of McGaha Electric Co. on North Sixth Avenue at Glenwood, a small brick building right in the shadow of a freeway overpass, SmartFIX40 was just that: a moderate annoyance that lasted only a while.

"All things considered, it went better than we expected," says Matt, though, his brother notes, they are glad that it's over.

"It was real noisy when they were pile-driving the street," says Dennis, sitting down to lunch with his brother and some employees on the day before the reopening ceremony. "The first stage—the first three or four months—that was the worst part."

Dennis says the dust was worse than the noise. At the very beginning of the project, it settled into a fine, ever-present coating on the building and surrounding parking lot.

Still, the two brothers say that the experience wasn't wholly unpleasant. And for that, they credit the diligence of the project's staff.

"They did a pretty good job of getting us adjusted leading up to the project," says Matt. "Glenn Malone from TDOT, he came by all the time to let us know what was going on. Sometimes, he'd just come by to see how we were doing. Every two or three days, we'd hear from someone."

That was not everyone's experience.

"When we first started up, we were fielding a lot of complaints," says TDOT project manager John Hunter. "Those have trickled off quite a bit, but we're still getting some from some of the neighborhood residents."

One such resident was Sam Hurst, who's lived in a home on West Fourth Avenue for more than 20 years.

"I called them up and complained, but it didn't do any good," says Hurst."They didn't do anything they said they were going to do."

Hurst's block dead-ends at an I-40 retaining wall, blocked from public access by a chain link fence. Leading up to it, the road looks patchy and unkempt. "There is where they were supposed to build a nice little cul-de-sac," he says. "That does not look like a cul-de-sac to me."

That doesn't sound familiar to Hunter.

"I was never aware of any cul-de-sac plan for that road," he says, looking at the project map behind him in his office. Neither is Malone, who handled community relations for the project, delivering construction notices, taking complaints door-to-door from neighbors, and appearing at community meetings from 2005 through the end of the project.

Hurst also says SmartFIX40 employees failed to live up to their offer to power-wash houses that were affected by the dust from the project, an offer that, according to Malone and Hunter, must have come from contractor-employed construction workers, not an official TDOT policy.

"When it started, I really did think it was a necessary fix, but now I wish they just left it alone," Hurst says.

Fourth and Gill resident Deb Hammond, who works the graveyard shift as a postal employee and sleeps during the day, says that she had to move because of the noise from the concrete blasting.

"TDOT drove me from my home," says Hammond, who lived in a house on Eleanor Street for 23 years before the project began. "Before this all started, it didn't occur to me when they did the blasting that it would feel like a little earthquake through my house. … I bought high and sold low, but there was no way I could have lived with that for a year."

She moved two blocks over, she says, selling her house to her neighbor, attorney Bennett Hirschhorn. Hirschhorn, who owns five houses in the neighborhood, including his home on Eleanor, says that the earth-shattering blasting caused some significant damage to his property.

"Right here, you can see it," he says, pointing to a curved stone lining that abuts his lawn. The stone is cracked—a result, he says, of the aftershocks from the explosions.

"They never sent out a notice before they were going to blast," Hirschhorn says. "All of a sudden it would just happen. The explosives they were using were much too large to use right in an historic district."

The home he bought from Hammond experienced foundation damage, too, he says. "That house—most of the houses around here that haven't been altered—it has a dirt foundation. The dirt moved to the point that the doors wouldn't close. We're going to have to pour concrete down there now."

"Blasting occurred only at the very beginning of the project," says Hunter. "Before we started up, our contracting companies did a seismographic analysis of the soil here, looking at how much shock damage would be appropriate and allowable."

He says that, as far as he knows, the blasting they did fell well within those limits.

Hirschhorn and Hammond are also angry about the removal of trees on their block for the project.

"They took a shocking amount of trees from this hill," also without warning, Hirschhorn says. "We came home one day and they were chipping up all these trees, acres and acres of them."

Before, there was a line of trees that went 60 or 70 feet back from the east side of Eleanor. Now the land's been cleared and a large sound-dampening wall has been put there.

"We saved as many trees as we possibly could," Hunter says. "Most of the ones we took out we did in order to relocate utility lines, where we had to lay sewer pipe. You put a sewer line next to tree roots, and those trees are going to die anyway."