Some small-business owners in the Central District say Seattle should be doing more to ease the pain of long-term road work along 23rd Avenue. But officials say providing financial support is against city policy.
When Sara Mae Brereton gazes out the window of her modest coffee shop at 23rd Avenue and East Cherry Street in Seattle’s Central District, she can see an arts center, Garfield Community Center and two public high schools.
She opened 701 Coffee a year ago because she thought the corner bustling with students, teachers, parents and neighbors was crying out for a spot to sip and chat.
But when Brereton looked out her window last week, she also saw a backhoe, caution tape, orange construction cones and a “road closed” sign.
Sales at 701 Coffee have plummeted since the city began rebuilding her section of 23rd Avenue in November, and she says her shop is on the verge of closing down.
Brereton is angry about officials not doing more to mitigate the impact of the long-term construction project, which has closed a mile of 23rd Avenue to northbound traffic over many months — and she’s not alone. Other small-business owners along the Central District’s main street say their businesses are struggling, too.
“This project has been a slow squeeze to the point now where we get no car traffic, no bus traffic, no foot traffic, and this isn’t just about me,” Brereton said. “This is about a corridor of 100 percent minority and family-owned businesses. But when I asked about mitigation money, the response from the city was, ‘We don’t have it.’ ”
The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) is gutting and reconstructing 4½ miles of 23rd and 24th avenues between Rainier Avenue South and East Roanoke Street.
When the $43 million-plus project is complete, what’s now a four-lane street will be cut to three, with one lane in each direction and a left-turn lane down the center.
The rebuilt 23rd Avenue will have new pavement, wider sidewalks, new streetlights, new traffic signals giving priority to transit, fewer bus stops (to improve speed), and a new water main, plus a new greenway along side streets for safer bicycling and walking.
Phase I, between South Jackson and East John streets, began last June, with completion scheduled for 2017.
To minimize the impact on the neighborhood, the plan was to first complete the section between South Jackson and East Cherry streets, then between East Cherry and East Union streets, and then between East Union and East John streets.
But work on the first section fell behind schedule when crews realized new light poles needed to be redesigned, SDOT spokesman Maribel Cruz said.
Rather than put the entire project on hold, SDOT allowed work to begin on the second section, resulting in the shutdown of northbound traffic through the entire stretch from South Jackson to East Union.
In November, early work began on the northern stretch, as well, with SDOT reducing traffic between East Union and East Madison streets to one lane in each direction.
Brereton says 701 Coffee averaged 70 to 80 patrons per day before the project began but now serves about 15.
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“How long is our business going to last? Two months, maybe,” she said. “I haven’t paid all my rent this month. I owe $1,000 on garbage. I owe the pastry guy $1,500.”
Saad Ali, who owns 99 Cents Plus near 23rd Avenue and East Union Street, and Atkelte Gibay, who owns the laundromat next door, also are worried.
SDOT has positioned “businesses are open” sidewalk signs near stores along 23rd Avenue. But Gibay says they don’t help much.
“Yeah, we can open the business, but where are the customers? Where’s the money?” he said. “My customers drive heavy loads. They don’t come now. I lose a lot of business. I have to take from my savings to survive in this situation.”
Ali says his sales are down 60 percent. When he ambushed Mayor Ed Murray with a 23rd Avenue question at a recent public meeting about housing affordability, the mayor introduced him to Brian Surratt, his Office of Economic Development (OED) director.
“What he said really didn’t make no sense. I didn’t get the point,” Ali said. “But after his speech he came up to give me his phone number. He said, ‘Let’s keep in touch.’ ”
OED has made a community liaison available to confer with the business owners and has provided them with up-to-date information about the project, Surratt says.
But the Central District proprietors want mitigation money and low-interest loans. That’s what businesses along Martin Luther King Jr. Way were offered when light rail was built. Waterfront businesses are getting $15 million during seawall construction.
Earl Lancaster, who’s run Earl’s Cuts and Styles barbershop on 23rd Avenue since 1996, says the road work has hurt his well-known business.
“My understanding is that it’s only going to get worse,” he said.
SDOT spokesman Richard Sheridan said the city never offers mitigation money for its construction, as a matter of policy. Light rail was a Sound Transit project, while the waterfront businesses were an exception because they agreed to briefly close.
He said the 23rd Avenue work will end up benefiting the businesses and that paying mitigation money “would significantly increase the cost of all projects across the city.”
Brereton described her interactions with SDOT and OED as frustrating.
The business owner has had discussions with OED about the city helping 701 Coffee pay for an advertisement in Garfield High School’s student newspaper.
She reached out to Kshama Sawant, City Councilmember for District 3.
“She said, ‘Give my assistant a call.’ He basically told me on the phone, ‘It isn’t a City Council issue. It’s a mayor’s office issue.’ ”
Murray cares about the economic health of the Central District, a neighborhood changing after decades as the heart of Seattle’s black community, Surratt says. OED has pledged $300,000 via a new group called the Central Area Collaborative, he says.
But the first $100,000 will be spent on “capacity building” — not on businesses hurting right now, Surratt admits.
Ted Virdone, a Sawant aide, says he met with SDOT and OED representatives and has asked city lawyers whether grants to some businesses might be possible. Sawant wrote a blog post encouraging people to patronize 23rd Avenue, Virdone noted.
Pamela Banks, who runs the Central District-based Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle and lost to Sawant in November’s City Council election, called the situation a mess.
“To me, outreach by the city has really diminished,” Banks said. “Sending out tweets saying businesses are open and putting out signs is not helping. These businesses need help paying their rents, paying their light bills. That’s what you have to do.”