Small businesses, such as Al Shukr Bakery in SeaTac, say they experience negative side effects — building damage, blocked access — from light-rail construction. And there’s the red tape of trying to get reimbursed.
Only a few customers a day walk into Al Shukr Bakery in SeaTac anymore. The fridge is broken, so there’s no halal goat meat or ground beef for sale. Drive-up access is harder than it used to be.
Dahabo Hassan, a Somali immigrant who owns the shop, blames construction of the future Angle Lake light-rail station a block away, which causes vibrations and limits access to parking.
Sound Transit denied her claims in a Feb. 17 letter, for $2,628 she spent to replace a freezer compressor and $7,792 in meat spoiled in a power outage last summer — not to mention lost sales.
Disputes such as these are an occasional and often overlooked side effect of infrastructure projects, with small-business owners going up against big-agency bureaucracies.
In September, transit passengers will enjoy a new $383 million rail extension, including the station and 1,050 park-and-ride spaces. Angle Lake Station follows the March 19 grand opening of the University of Washington and Capitol Hill stations.
“They came and destroyed people, and won’t pay anything,” Hassan said during a recent slow morning at the bakery. “Is that fair?”
Sound Transit says it is simply following state law.
In its notice to Hassan, the agency explained that covering Hassan’s sales losses would be “an illegal gift of public funds and would violate Article 8, Section 7 of the Washington State Constitution,” following a review by Ahmad Fazel, executive director for design, engineering and construction.
That is a longstanding position among government agencies in the state.
As for direct damage, project contracts have indemnification clauses putting that burden on contractors, not taxpayers. Sound Transit helped Hassan send claims to three companies, whose insurance adjusters denied them.
She may still use the agency’s ombudsman process, which would have deputy CEO Mike Harbour review her claim, transit spokeswoman Kimberly Reason said.
After the February rejection letter, Hassan noticed how small businesses on 23rd Avenue in Seattle were squeezed by a road rebuild, and then were told by City Hall to expect no compensation. Ultimately, Mayor Ed Murray created a $650,000 business stabilization fund.
A decade ago, politicians overseeing Sound Transit created a $50 million fund to cover construction-related losses and relocations on Martin Luther King, Jr. Way, an area with mostly minority residents like today’s SeaTac. Merchants could send monthly sales records to be paid “business interruption grants.”
But at MLK Way, and 23rd Avenue, federal community development grants covered the expenses, exempt from Washington state law. Sound Transit didn’t create a federally funded program for Angle Lake because the agency’s business aid program is sufficient, Reason said.
“This is not something we take lightly,” Reason said. “We care about the communities where we construct and operate our service. We want to do everything we can to mitigate the damage, within the constraints of the law.”
In a larger dispute, merchants in Vancouver, B.C., sued and failed to get reimbursed, when cut-and-cover construction of the 2010 Canada Line train route harmed commerce on Cambie Street.
The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) does not reimburse business losses related to maintenance, construction or highway access, said spokesman Lars Erickson. The state sometimes provides ads or signs, changes construction hours, or suspends work in the holiday retail season, he said.
Sound Transit did pay $2,000 for a consultant, Arnold Shain of Restaurant Group, to help Hassan make a business plan. Shain suggested she diversify by serving sandwiches, kebabs, smoothies and soups in a new cafe section of the shop, which could appeal to transit riders, and to branch out into catering.
Hassan said she recently got one of her two ovens fixed for $1,300. For the first time in months, fresh cookies are on the shelf.
Trying to hang on
The damage happened July 17, she said, during a phase of construction that made the building shake. A cooler full of meat spoiled and had to be thrown away, she said. The ovens and water heater stopped working two weeks later.
“The electricity, during the vibration, was running on and off. It would turn on, then turn off,” she said. One of two emergency-exit signs in the kitchen fell, she said.
Sound Transit advised her to find a lawyer — which Hassan can’t afford. Seattle attorney James A. Jackson says he’s working free for her.
They didn’t have enough evidence to sway the contractor’s insurance adjuster, Jackson said Friday. Her freezer got fixed, so there’s little prospect of creating a forensic report about last year’s electrical damage, he said. Sound Transit has “nice people” that steered her toward outside help, he said.
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“I just think there was poor planning. They should have had something in place to take care of these people,” said Jackson.
Gross sales at Al Shukr declined from $42,024 in July to $27,300 in November, her bank reported to the Internal Revenue Service. Hassan said a $15,000 loan from The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia helped her pay rent through winter.
The bakery suffered another blow unrelated to transit construction — the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 18 revoked her permission to accept food-stamp payments from customers. The feds accused her of trafficking, based on 195 transactions over $200 that the USDA perceived as “repetitive patterns of unusual, irregular and inexplicable activity,” between May and July.
U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, is making an inquiry on her behalf to USDA. Leafing through her records, Hassan said it’s common for East African families to buy large amounts of halal meat, rice and pastries in one trip, and some drive from as far as Spokane to make big purchases.
Next door, All Star Grocery owner Ken Kim installed a full-size, steel door in back so customers could enter from a rear parking lot, while the front lot was blocked last year. Kim says that set him back $5,500. His claim to Sound Transit was denied, Reason said.
Akwinder Kaur, owner of Eye Brow & Lash Art Spa, says she spent $5,460 on repairs and lost thousands in sales. Dieynada Kouyate, owner of Saran African Market, said dust settled over her food containers for months. Neither Kaur nor Kouyate say they filed a claim.
Court records show Sound Transit did pay the property owner a $227,000 settlement for permanent and temporary land takings last year, to widen South 200th Street, add a sidewalk, and build a retaining wall.
The nearby Bull Pen pub and a Chevron minimart, on the corners at International Boulevard South, have gotten along with fewer driveways, in various phases of the job.
Hassan, a 37-year-old mother of 11, formerly worked in a glass factory in Fargo, N.D. Her husband died in a car crash, she said, after which she moved to the Northwest and remarried. Her husband drives long hours for Uber, while her oldest son studies engineering at the University of Washington, she said.
Part of the allure of light rail is the prospect of more customers, a boon to merchants who tough it out.
Sound Transit customarily buys coffee, cakes, and sandwiches from businesses along the line to serve at political ceremonies — then invites vendors to sell food at opening-day festivals.
A payday at Angle Lake could arrive by fall with the opening of the light-rail station.
Hassan said she doesn’t think her business can survive that long.