From Iceland — Work On Hverfisgata A Nuisance: Construction Lags While Businesses Suffer

Work On Hverfisgata A Nuisance: Construction Lags While Businesses Suffer

Published August 30, 2019

Sam O'Donnell
Photo by
Art Bicnick

The eastern stretch of Hverfisgata closed on May 20th and is slated to remain closed until late September while road improvements are made. The lengthy project will see the installation of new street lights, a bike path, and hot water pipes to heat the street, making it much safer year-round. While the end result is promising, business owners on Hverfisgata are feeling the consequences of the construction.

Unforeseen delays have made the process slow-going, and have been a burden to businesses on the busy street. The Managing Director of Reykjavík Residences recently threatened a lawsuit with the city, citing loss of revenue as a result of the delays. Restaurants on the street have been suffering—Grái Kötturinn, or The Gray Cat, has experienced a decline in customer traffic, and in early August, celebrated restaurants Dill and Systur closed.

The challenges of business

In 2017, Dill earned Iceland’s first Michelin Star. Last year, the same owners opened Systur in the same building. In the hospitality industry, running a restaurant is fast-paced and challenging and profit margins are often slim. With a large staff, the percentage of income going to wages may increase enormously. Between this difficulty, and the difficulty of being on a busy street under construction.

One cat’s perspective

Grái Kötturinn is a café located in the basement of an old building on Hverfisgata. A gray cat is painted on the glass of the front door. Bookshelves line the walls, and the smell of coffee lingers in the air.

The owner of the restaurant, Ásmundur Helgason, was apparently only given a few days notice before the construction began. “I read about it in the first week in April on the Morgunblaðið website. Then I tried to find more information about it on Reykjavík homepage,” he explains. To learn more, he called the city and spoke with three people who didn’t know anything about any road work. He subsequently sent an email to the chairperson of the city’s planning board, but when she never responded, Ásmundur assumed the notice was sent in error. In the middle of May though, he received an official notice from the city. Then, a few days later, the construction began.

“What we are missing is the walk-in traffic”

Bjarni Brynjólfsson, speaking on behalf of the mayor of Reykjavík, expressed regret about the way the notice was handled. “We didn’t inform people on the street soon enough,” he said. “We could have done better.”

A comic tragedy

The result was like turning off a valve. “We are lucky enough to have tourists that have planned ahead before deciding to come to Iceland. What we are missing is the walk-in traffic,” Ásmundur explains, adding that the construction began around the same time that WOW Air stopped flying. So there may be more than one cause for the decline in traffic at his establishment, but the closure of Hverfisgata hasn’t helped.

grái kötturinn

Ásmundur is not optimistic about the projected completion date. “I sent an email [to the mayor] when I got notice, and I got an answer on May 16. He said they would start putting asphalt on the road in mid-July.” As of this printing, the road is still torn up.

“Now the mayor says it’s going to happen in September.” Given the amount of work left and the number of people working on the road on any given day, it is hard to imagine they will finish on time.

While he is pessimistic about the end date of construction, Ásmundur is optimistic about his business. “The cat has nine lives,” he laughs. “I consider this is a comical tragedy. I don’t want to come off as crying, but rather laughing.”

Not a new problem

The city performed similar construction in 2013 on the western stretch of Hverfisgata, which similarly upset locals at the time. That project was completed many weeks behind schedule. However, the street wasn’t as lively then as it is now, so the sense of urgency in regards to the construction was not as palpable. Regardless, the toll that road closures have on local businesses is clear, and business owners would urge City officials to take them into account.

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