A basement blues club gets a new lease on life. Credit for saving a little piece of Seattle’s soul goes to ... Bertha?
Bertha is a four-letter word around here. But the world’s largest and most-inept tunnel drill may have just saved a little piece of Seattle’s soul.
Remember last summer, when I told the story of how the real-estate gold rush was rolling over the state’s best live-blues hall down along the Alaskan Way Viaduct?
The place is called the Highway 99 Blues Club, and its tale is familiar in this city. Real-estate frenzy leads to new ownership at old buildings followed by jacked rent. In this case, the blues club’s rent was tripled, going up $10,000 per month — the largest dollar monthly rent increase I’ve ever seen.
So a funky little business is gentrified away. Steam-cleaned from the city fabric like another wad off the gum wall.
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Highway 99, voted the state’s top blues bar eight of the last 10 years by the Washington Blues Society, was readying to box up its microphones and beer taps and close at the end of December.
“Booking agents for the bands were calling and saying ‘Is it over?’ ” says Steve Sarkowsky, a drummer who founded the basement juke joint.
But a funny thing happened on the way to sanitizing the waterfront. OK, Bertha’s not really that funny. Neither is the delayed, over-budget seawall project. But both have conspired to create such mess and uncertainty that the club’s new landlord struggled to find anyone who wanted to move into the blues club’s digs.
“We’re practically under the viaduct, with constant construction,” Sarkowsky says. “Plus, no one’s willing to wager that Bertha’s going to work. So my understanding is there wasn’t a lot of interest.”
It’s like that right now all along the mile where the old concrete double-decker freeway still roars along Elliott Bay. The waterside is torn up from the seawall rebuild. The city-side blocks, despite a real-estate sweepstakes going on that might be unmatched in the city’s history, still sits mostly frozen in amber from 25 or 50 years ago.
Some of the buildings have sold for extraordinary premiums, due to the lure of an all-new waterfront park once the highway comes down. The building that houses the blues club sold for $12.4 million last year, a 76 percent markup over its last sale, in 2011.
In Pioneer Square, the price escalation is unfathomable even for boom city. A portion of a block at Jackson Street and Alaskan Way that sold for $23.9 million in 2011 flipped for $57.6 million three years later. A complex of two office buildings up against the viaduct on King Street that sold for $28.7 million in 2006 was turned for $125 million in 2011. But that buyer sold it in 2013 for $225 million. That’s about an eightfold price increase in just seven years.
Yet for all the speculation there’s not much happening, yet. There’s one new 16-story apartment complex going up right against the viaduct, next to the steam plant. But the viaduct mile remains mostly warehouses, antique shops, old print shops and parking garages. For now.
“I think the real-estate people jumped the gun a bit,” Sarkowsky says. “I call it ‘arrested development.’ They all got in line down here, expecting big action. But now they’re all waiting for Bertha. And who knows when that’s going to end?”
It’s like waiting for Godot, both in the existential absurdity and also that Bertha might never come. Ironically this makes the city’s central waterfront one of the few places where you can still get a deal on rent.
Because the owner couldn’t find anyone else, the blues club just signed a two-year extension at only a minor increase.
“We’re going to be priced out eventually,” Sarkowsky says. “But now we get at least two more years of the music and that’s great. There’s still a place in Seattle for basement blues.”
Bertha, you’ve always had us singing the blues. Now in more ways than one.