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With artery flowing again, Essex hopes to regain health

Route 133 overhaul wraps up after years of traffic congestion

Local residents, including Essex shop owner Bob Coviello (center) and Scott Silva at Woodman’s restaurant, are glad work on Route 133 is nearly done. Local residents, including Essex shop owner Bob Coviello (center) and Scott Silva at Woodman’s restaurant, are glad work on Route 133 is nearly done.
(Photos By John Blanding/Globe Staff)
By David Rattigan
Globe Correspondent / September 18, 2011

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ESSEX - There’s nothing like an old sidewalk to make you appreciate a new sidewalk.

“They were narrow, depressed in some areas, with divots and things jutting out that had grown over the years,’’ recalled Bob Coviello, walking the wide raised sidewalks along Main Street in Essex. “Folks who were not secure on their feet were really in danger when they had to walk somewhere.‘’

Coviello is the owner of two antique shops and chairman of the Essex Merchants Group, whose mission is to promote business in a town known for scenic marshes, shipbuilding, and fried clams. No one is happier to see the completion of the state project to reconstruct Route 133, which in Essex includes Eastern Avenue, Main Street, and John Wise Avenue.

In six of the past 10 years, merchants have looked out their windows to see construction vehicles and backed-up traffic. First, there was a town sewer project, and then the state project, which began in 2009. In that time, businesses have suffered a downturn that Coviello and others attribute primarily to a tough economy, but also in part to the difficulties getting through town.

“I think the road is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of our business loss,’’ he said.

With the installation of safer roads and sidewalks, and the departure of construction vehicles and roadblocks, there are plans to plant flowers and shrubbery, and to create pocket parks and other features that downtown businesspeople hope will entice both residents and others to visit the area. For example, a small piece of private property on Route 133 has been transformed into Paglia Park, maintained by the town, and features a flower-filled wagon and a bench.

“It’s very nice,’’ said Ed Perkins, who owns Perkins Marine across the street as well as some adjacent property. “It’s a place where people can sit down, and connects the two ends of town.’’

Estimates indicate that more than 10,000 vehicles travel Route 133 every day, said Coviello, and town businesses want more of them to stop.

“Our hope is to get all of the people who have avoided Essex because of three years of traffic to come back to Essex,’’ said Coviello. “We want to build some momentum off the fact that it’s a much more beautified space.’’

Coviello and Perkins are members of a task force set up by the local chapter of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce to work with the town and the state Department of Transportation throughout the project.

“When we started discussing the idea that this would happen, that was one of our main goals, to make it a more pedestrian-friendly town,’’ said another task force member, Sue Lufkin, who is chairwoman of the chamber’s Essex Division. “We wanted it so people could walk from one end to the other comfortably. What could be better than to look out at the marshes and the river as you walk along the causeway? It couldn’t be more beautiful.’’

The merchants group has taken on the task of promoting the area by marketing local shops, restaurants, museums, recreational opportunities, and available parking. The annual initiative to display about 2,500 mums - mostly along the main road - is scheduled for Tuesday.

Already, there are signs of a shift in habits.

“Driving down that stretch, I see far more people jogging, biking, with babies, or just out for a walk than before the project, because now there’s a clear pathway for those activities,’’ said Town Administrator Brendhan Zubricki, who has worked for Essex since 1995, and drives on that stretch of Route 133 on his way to and from Town Hall.

The town is planning more changes aimed at making the area more welcoming for pedestrians, including designating $7,500 for landscape design and permitting for three tiny parks. In addition to Paglia Park, there are plans to put benches at the Village Corner, and at the small landing across the street from Woodman’s restaurant.

Earlier this year, the state’s Seaport Advisory Council announced that it had awarded a $155,000 grant for a feasibility study to build a boardwalk along the approximately 200-foot seawall on Route 133, between Perkins Marine and a now-vacant restaurant building

While many merchants lament the struggle for business, hope springs eternal. On Main Street, Teri Eramo recently opened Eventide, an art gallery.

“I’ve always loved Essex,’’ Eramo explained. “We came to visit when I was 12 from Pennsylvania, and I thought ‘One day, I want to be in that town.’ It’s just a wonderful place.’’