One year later, Cheshire Bridge Road still not fully reopened after fire

July 21, 2022 Atlanta - Aerial photograph shows construction area where the bridge along Cheshire Bridge Road, which crosses over Peachtree Creek, was demolished after the fire August 4 last year on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

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July 21, 2022 Atlanta - Aerial photograph shows construction area where the bridge along Cheshire Bridge Road, which crosses over Peachtree Creek, was demolished after the fire August 4 last year on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Before a fire chopped Cheshire Bridge Road in half last year, Larry Underwood estimates he made thousands of dollars each week while working as a barber at Anytime Cutz, a 24-hour barbershop on that street in northeast Atlanta.

But since Aug. 4, 2021 – the day a fire under a Cheshire Bridge overpass hit a natural gas pipeline and damaged the bridge – Underwood, an independent contractor, guesses he makes about $1,500 per week.

“This shop would be full,” said Underwood, a traveling barber who is known professionally as SpudCutz. “It’s Tuesday afternoon, one barber in here. There’s 10 barbers that work here. One out of 10, what does that tell you?”

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Larry Underwood, also known as SpudCutz, photographed at his booth inside of Anytime Cutz on Cheshire Bridge Road on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Larry Underwood, also known as SpudCutz, photographed at his booth inside of Anytime Cutz on Cheshire Bridge Road on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Larry Underwood, also known as SpudCutz, photographed at his booth inside of Anytime Cutz on Cheshire Bridge Road on Wednesday, July 20, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

It’s been a year since the fire, which rendered the bridge over South Fork Peachtree Creek structurally unsafe. The city then demolished it and sought a contractor to build a new one.

Officials initially estimated the bridge would take a year or more to be rebuilt. The city now says it hopes to reopen the road by the end of October, nearly 15 months after the fire. The ordeal has caused frustration and confusion among the businesses, nearby residents and some Atlanta City Council members, who wonder why it took the city months to secure a contractor to rebuild the bridge.

Construction to rebuild the bridge began in the last month, but the two halves of Cheshire Bridge Road — normally a well-trafficked northeast Atlanta corridor — remain cut off from one another. It’s caused a headache for drivers. And small businesses say they have suffered.

“I want them to get done as quick as possible. It’s very ridiculous to wait this long to get a small bridge fixed,” said Jonas Ghebre, who owns Mexican grocery store and restaurant Mercado Acapulco y Taqueria. He said he used to feed a crowd of workers during the lunch rush, but his sales have dropped 30% since the bridge closed.

Sometimes called Atlanta’s unofficial red-light district, Cheshire Bridge Road has become a well-known and iconic corridor thanks to its colorful and diverse collection of local businesses — including strip clubs, adult entertainment shops, thrift stores and beloved restaurants.

The road also connected neighborhoods around Midtown and Piedmont Park with I-85 and Buckhead. Since the fire shut down the bridge, a 2- to 3-mile detour has forced drivers to go through Morningside or Lindbergh to get to the other side of Cheshire Bridge.

A few businesses that operate appointment-only business models said they have been largely unaffected by the closure. But those that depend on walk-in customers, including Anytime Cutz and some restaurants, said they have been especially hurt.

Scott Duke, the owner of Greek restaurant Taverna Plaka, estimated his sales have dropped about 40% in the last year.

“Take away 40%, and then imagine that you have a community of people that rely on you, and they still have their rent,” Duke said. “Money’s not always flowing in the right direction these days in the hospitality business.”

As for residents in the area, the detour brings more traffic to their streets, and it means they can’t get around as easily.

Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, who represents the area, summed up the mood in the community as “general frustration, disappointment, not understanding why this has taken so long.”

In the weeks after the fire, the city determined the bridge needed to be demolished and contracted with a local company to tear it down. The demolition was completed at the end of November, about three months later.

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July 21, 2022 Atlanta - Aerial photograph shows construction area where the bridge along Cheshire Bridge Road, which crosses over Peachtree Creek, was demolished after the fire August 4 last year on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

July 21, 2022 Atlanta - Aerial photograph shows construction area where the bridge along Cheshire Bridge Road, which crosses over Peachtree Creek, was demolished after the fire August 4 last year on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Combined ShapeCaption
July 21, 2022 Atlanta - Aerial photograph shows construction area where the bridge along Cheshire Bridge Road, which crosses over Peachtree Creek, was demolished after the fire August 4 last year on Thursday, July 21, 2022. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The city said at the time that it hoped construction to rebuild the bridge would begin in the first three months of 2022.

But it wasn’t until early May that the city announced it had contracted with the firm C. W. Matthews to design and rebuild the bridge. The city is paying the firm nearly $7 million for the project, according to a copy of the contract obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

As soon as Wan took office at the beginning of the year, he said he sought updates on the structure but hasn’t been privy to details about why it took so long for construction to start.

“I believe the city could have done a better job with the procurement process,” Wan said.

Roughly a mile away, a stretch of I-85 collapsed in 2017 after a massive fire raged under the bridge. The vital artery to the city and region was fixed in just six weeks – by the same company handling the Cheshire Bridge rebuild. When the Georgia Department of Transportation selected C.W. Matthews for the I-85 collapse, it bypassed the typical bid process for construction projects. The federal government swooped in with $10 million to fund much of the rebuild, and construction was handled 24/7.

While the city used an emergency contracting process in hope of speeding up the Cheshire Bridge project, it’s being handled by the Atlanta Department of Transportation and without federal support. However, Cheshire Bridge is a minor road compared to that stretch of I-85, which 250,000 vehicles traverse each day.

Still, residents say the Cheshire Bridge project should have been prioritized by the city, considering it was the alternate route during the I-85 repair.

“It’s become a ghost town,” Ghebre said. “There’s no one out there, and the nightlife is really low. Cheshire Bridge used to be a very vibrant street, and now you don’t see anything happening.”