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City completes Central Subway excavation, but Chinatown still struggling

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Pedestrians walk through a narrow corridor along Stockton Street next to a construction area for the Central Subway’s Chinatown station. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Deep beneath Chinatown, 120 feet below shops like the Far East Trade Center, and S & M Ginseng Co., The City has reached a new milestone:

Excavation of the Central Subway Chinatown Station is complete.

The announcement by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Tuesday morning means that digging is officially finished for the Central Subway project, which is scheduled to launch in December 2019.

The project remains delayed by a year, much to the consternation of Chinatown merchants, who say some neighborhood stores have closed as construction impacts nearby foot traffic.

SEE RELATED: Central Subway completion date delayed again

Despite those challenges, by Christmas next year officials say the T-Third line will roll from South of Market past Union Square and end its route in Chinatown, giving the neighborhood its first subway.

Standing on damp concrete underground, far below bustling Stockton Street, Mayor Mark Farrell remarked on the tough times faced by the neighborhood.

“It is what it is,” he told reporters. “The crews are working to do this as quick as possible.”

Those very crews were busy behind Farrell, clad in yellow and orange construction jackets, laying down wooden planks in the cavernous station. The future station is a tremendous oval tunnel, 54 feet wide and 42 feet high. Soon, crews from contractor Tutor Perini will begin pouring concrete for the next phase of construction and installing station electrical systems.

When asked if there may be further delays coming, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin said, “We’re holding with December 2019.”

Reiskin said there’s less chance of further setbacks now because excavation is the most complicated process in station construction. “You don’t know what you’ll find when you’re digging,” he told the San Francisco Examiner. Coming across utility lines not logged in city plans, or different kinds of soil, all can lead to delays, he said.

“The biggest risk is behind us now,” Reiskin said.

Local merchants, however, may not see relief any time soon.

Albert Hoe, acting program manager for the Central Subway project, told reporters there will be no change to the amount of work staging on Stockton Street, although some utility work has moved to side streets to offset the impacts on merchants.

“Right now, we’re minimized as best we can,” he said.

There is good news for Union Square merchants, however, as Hoe said “by the end of the year” street work on the Central Subway there will wrap up. That construction impacted shops as Stockton Street closed from Union Square to Market Street.

Though Chinatown merchants have blamed the Central Subway construction as a cause for the shuttering of some local businesses, the project was long called for by community advocates, including the late community organizer Rose Pak.

Amid business challenges, The City and local groups have stepped up to aid neighborhood merchants with $450,000 worth of support from The Mayor’s Office. The funds were approved by the late Ed Lee late last year, in conjunction with the Office of Economic and Workforce Development and Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown.

SEE RELATED: SF issues first funds to Chinatown businesses hurt by delayed Central Subway construction

Additionally, local politicos and heads of neighborhood groups banded together to form the Rose Pak Community Fund, which in February handed out $150,000 worth of vouchers to local low-income residents. Those vouchers were redeemable at businesses harmed by Stockton Street subway construction and Broadway Tunnel construction.

Malcolm Yeung, political director of the Chinatown Community Development Center, who also helped convene the Rose Pak Community Fund, said shops in the neighborhood got a big boost recently from Chinese New Year.

Still, he said, The City and its partners need to keep working to aid merchants so they are still standing when the Central Subway is completed.

“The businesses that make up the fabric of Chinatown can’t be shut down by this project,” he said. “They deserve the benefit of the bargain and we’ve gotta make sure that happens.”

When asked to respond to the construction milestone, Supervisor Aaron Peskin, who represents Chinatown among other neighborhoods, texted to the Examiner “Yippee.”

When asked if he thinks the merchants will see relief, he simply wrote, “Eventually.”

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